NL 2015/03

Carl Djerassi and the Pill: He Was the ‘Supplier’ of the Active Ingredient

While we also have other participators to thank for the contraceptive pill, he was probably the best known of all: the chemist Carl Djerassi (born in 1923), who died 30 January 2015. The youngest of the group, he outlived his colleagues by decades, making him the only one to witness the incredible hype around the pill and the subsequent gradual growth of mistrust.

In a way, the pill was invented twice: first as the vision of two women, the nurse Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and her wealthy friend, the biologist Katharine McCormick (1875-1967). The second time as a development project in the field of medical chemistry. In 1951, Sanger and McCormick persuaded the physiologist Gregory Pincus (1903-1967) to discover a safe, effective contraceptive for the purpose of liberating women from what was then called ‘compulsory childbearing’. He developed the principle of hormonal contraception based on the observation that an elevated concentration of progesterone (which can be found during pregnancy) hinders ovulation. In doing so, he used the progesterone synthesized by Djerassi and colleagues. The gynaecologist John Rock (1890-1984) then performed clinical tests and drew up the initial regimen used to imitate the menstrual cycle. ‘The pill’ was launched on the market in the early 1960s.

This safe and reliable method of contraception was what enabled the emancipation of women, as is shown by international studies (e.g. Pezzini 2004). But after the initial relief produced by this new possibility, there was growing scepticism. While the pill is still the first choice among contraceptives, more and more women and couples are employing less reliable methods out of a desire for something more ‘natural’, and the figure has already risen to 19 per cent (Österreichischer Verhütungsreport 2012).

And so, many women still have unwanted pregnancies. This is surprising in light of the fact that more effective methods of contraception are available now than at any time in human history.


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