Gregory Pincus

Birth Control Pill

Gregory Goodwin Pincus was one of the creators of the first effective birth-control pill. Born on April 9, 1903, in Woodbine, New Jersey, his father was a teacher, the editor of the “Jewish Farmer” and an agricultural consultant. However, Pincus credited two uncles, both agricultural scientists, as responsible for his early interest in research.

Pincus’s family moved to Bronx, New York when he was a teenager, where he attended high school. He went to Cornell University and received a bachelor's degree in agriculture in 1924. Then he went to Harvard University where he was an instructor in zoology while also working toward his master's and doctorate degrees. He finished his doctoral degree in 1927.

From 1927 to 1930 Pincus moved from Harvard to Cambridge University in England to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, conducting research. He became an instructor in general physiology at Harvard in 1930 and was promoted a year later to assistant professor. By age 35, he was already an international authority on the sex of mammals and sex hormones, and more than 70 of his research papers had been published.

He first became known to the general public in 1939 when newspapers printed articles about his experiments and research with "fatherless" rabbits:  While a professor of experimental zoology at Clark University in Worchester, Mass., he brought about the first fatherless mammalian birth in history by inducing parthenogenesis in a female rabbit. He used high temperature, hormone treatments and salt solutions to fertilize the ovum in a test tube. He then implanted the developing egg in the reproductive tract of the female rabbit, where the egg matured through the normal stages.

Several years later, as director of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, Pincus began to concentrate on hormone studies. Working with Dr. M. C. Chang, a senior scientist of the Worcester Foundation, and Dr. John Rock, head of the Rock Reproductive Clinic of Brookline, Mass., Dr. Pincus developed a relatively safe and simple oral contraceptive that revolutionized family planning. In 1956, the team began experiments in Brookline, Mass., Puerto Rico and Haiti using the steroid in pill form on hundreds of women. Success was reported. In 1957 the Food and Drug Administration authorized the marketing of the steroids for miscarriage and certain menstrual disorders, and in 1960, the Federal agency licensed Enovid, a contraceptive pill.

“The Pill,” as it has come to be called, not only revolutionized methods of birth control, but also introduced the previously taboo topic as a subject for worldwide debate on curbing overpopulation. Women were cautious in accepting it when it was first marketed in 1960 but today more than ten million American women are using it.

Pincus served as research professor at the Tufts College Medical School from 1946 to 1950 and as research professor in biology at Boston University from 1950 until he passed away in1967. In 1963, he became the first chairman of the Oral Advisory Group of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
Soon after the success of the birth-control pill, Pincus and Chiang started work on a new pill, which would prevent implantation after fertilization. The two were still working on this new pill when Pincus died, but since then the “morning after” pill, as it is popularly known, has become widely available.

Pincus has been recognized for his work with a number of awards, including the Lasker Award from Planned Parenthood, the Oliver Bird Award (London) in 1960, and the Modern Medicine Award in 1964. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965.