1. Archive

The history of the pill

Some important dates in the 50-year history of the pill:

Oct. 15, 1951 _ Carl Djerassi synthesizes the first pure crystalline female hormone, progesterone, into a substance he calls norethindrone. He at first does not realize its potential as a contraceptive agent.

1953 _ Alfred Kinsey publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which suggests that women are sexual beings, too.

1955 _ G.D. Searle, an American pharmaceutical company, is granted the first patent on a similar synthetic hormone. (It differs only in the location of one of its carbon double bonds.) This is the chemical used in the production of the first commercial pill.

1957 _ C.H. Rolph writes about the scientific quest for "the pill." It's the first time the now common euphemism appears in print.

Aug. 18, 1960 _ That first pill, Enovid 10, is licensed by the Food and Drug Administration and made available in the United States.

1962 _ Helen Gurley Brown writes Sex and the Single Girl, which says that single women have the right to sex and that acceptance of one's body as sexual is healthy.

1962 _ The Dialpak, that package that aligned the pills in order and offered placebos on off days, was patented; 28 cases of death and thyrombotic disease in women who take the pill are reported.

1963 _ Betty Friedan writes The Feminine Mystique, which argues that true equality will never take place without complete reproductive freedom.

1970 _ The American Medical Association counsels doctors to give their patients every available piece of information about the benefits and risks of the drug. The advent of packaging inserts is resented by doctors as an intrusion on their authority. Lengthy, complicated, in tiny print, the inserts are eventually criticized as serving more to protect the manufacturer from liability than the patient from side effects.

1972 _ The Supreme Court effectively extends the right of birth control to unmarried couples.

1974 _ By law, girls under 18 are allowed to buy contraceptives without their parents' consent in California.

1980s _ Pill use drops off; voluntary sterilization sharply increases.

1993 _ Mother Teresa refers to all contraception as inherently selfish; the FDA first considers making the pill available over the counter.

1997 _ Pope John Paul II reaffirms the church's opposition to artificial contraception but advises priests to be compassionate in the confessional to couples who are not abiding by the dictate.

Sources: Alan Guttmacher Institute; "On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970," by Elizabeth Siegel Watkins (1998, Johns Hopkins University Press); "Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill," by Lara V. Marks (2001, Yale University Press); "This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Pill," by Carl Djerassi (2001, Oxford University Press); Family Planning Perspectives; Newsweek; various worldwide and wire service reports.