Spawning Birth Control

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1957

Katharine McCormick had grown up in a prominent Chicago family, struggled through eight difficult years to become the second woman to graduate from MIT, then married the emotionally disturbed youngest son of Cyrus McCormick (reaper of the International Harvester fortune). Their marriage was probably never consummated, and her husband soon spiraled into horrifying mental illness and decades of institutionalization. Katharine poured her energies into the nascent women’s movement. She became an officer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was heavily involved in organizing and funding the campaign to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and became vice president of the League of Women Voters after ratification.

When her mother died in 1937, Katharine inherited $10 million, and the death of her husband in 1947 left her additional tens of millions. It took five years to conclude family battles and pay inheritance taxes, but once the estate was settled Katharine was rich. She asked Margaret Sanger (the founder of what would become Planned Parenthood and a friend made through suffrage politics) for advice on where she might make a difference with her money.

Sanger had long dreamed of a means of preventing pregnancy that would be as easy as taking an aspirin, so in 1953 she introduced McCormick to a scientist she thought might be able to pull off such a creation. Gregory Pincus was a brilliant biologist but so unobservant of conventional ethical scruples that he had been fired by Harvard and was scraping by in a small lab of his own in Worcester, Massachusetts. At their first meeting, McCormick wrote a check to Pincus for $40,000. She funded him steadily thereafter at $150,000-$180,000 per year—eventually investing more than $2 million in his quest to develop a daily birth-control pill.

McCormick was the sole and entire funder of this work. In today’s dollars her contributions come to approximately $20 million. And she was involved in more than just funding. She brushed off suggestions from Sanger and others that she support broad basic research, and spread her contributions across many labs. McCormick wasn’t seeking scientific advance; she wanted a consumer product available as soon as possible. She eventually moved from California to Massachusetts to monitor development of the pill and pushed constantly for the researchers to speed the drug trials.

At a time when 30 states still had laws on the books that nominally forbade the sale of contraceptives, the philanthropist and her scientists were intentionally obscure about much of their work. Live trials were conducted on women without their consent or even knowledge. And the drugs had been tested on only about 60 women, for a year or less, when Pincus announced publicly that they had a working birth-control pill. He did this to generate public pressure for FDA approval, which followed quickly in 1957.

The pill was subsequently credited with kicking off the Sexual Revolution and sparking dramatic changes in family life, economic behavior, and social order. Katharine McCormick’s indispensable impetus in bankrolling creation of the pill has often been overlooked, but she herself reveled in her accomplishment—even getting a prescription, as a matron in her 80s, so she could buy some of the first birth control in her local pharmacy. Not because she needed it, but because she wanted it.