The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

Overview

A Chicago Tribune "Best Books of 2014" • A Slate "Best Books 2014: Staff Picks" • A St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Best Books of 2014"
The fascinating story of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.We know it simply as "the pill," yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig's masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights ...

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The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution

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Overview

A Chicago Tribune "Best Books of 2014" • A Slate "Best Books 2014: Staff Picks" • A St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Best Books of 2014"
The fascinating story of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.We know it simply as "the pill," yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig's masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights of women but neglected her own children in pursuit of free love; the beautiful Katharine McCormick, who owed her fortune to her wealthy husband, the son of the founder of International Harvester and a schizophrenic; the visionary scientist Gregory Pincus, who was dismissed by Harvard in the 1930s as a result of his experimentation with in vitro fertilization but who, after he was approached by Sanger and McCormick, grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a drug that could stop ovulation; and the telegenic John Rock, a Catholic doctor from Boston who battled his own church to become an enormously effective advocate in the effort to win public approval for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.Spanning the years from Sanger’s heady Greenwich Village days in the early twentieth century to trial tests in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, this is a grand story of radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes. Brilliantly researched and briskly written, The Birth of the Pill is gripping social, cultural, and scientific history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

We call it "The Pill." Author Jonathan Eig (Luckiest Man; Get Capone) calls oral contraceptives "the only product in American history so powerful that it needed no name." The Pill carries the barest of monikers, but the story of the genesis of this major scientific discovery is not simply told. Fortunately, Eng's The Birth of the Pill tells it well, describing its four prime movers and how their individual commitments coalesced. Each of this unlikely group had a dynamic, even eccentric personality: fervent feminist Margaret Sanger; heiress Katharine McCormick; brilliant scientist Gregory Pincus; and John Rock, a Catholic doctor who defied his own church. A readable account; certain to receive major media attention.

The New York Times Book Review - Irin Carmon
Eig…brings a lively, jocular approach to the story, casting an unlikely four-part ensemble comedy starring [Margaret] Sanger; the iconoclastic lead scientist, Gregory Goodwin Pincus; the Roman Catholic physician John Rock; and the supplier of cash behind it all, Katharine McCormick…The book is nimbly paced and conversational…
Publishers Weekly
★ 07/21/2014
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig (Luckiest Man) blends the story of the “only product in American history so powerful that it needed no name” with the lives of the four-larger-than-life characters who dreamed, funded, researched, and tested it. Eig recapitulates much of what’s known about the discovery of oral contraceptives and adds a wealth of unfamiliar material. He frames his story around the brilliant Gregory Pincus, who was let go by Harvard after his controversial work on in-vitro fertilization; charismatic Catholic fertility doctor John Rock, who developed a treatment that blocked ovulation and, with Pincus, began human testing (including on nonconsenting asylum patients); and the two fearless women who paid for and supported their work, rebellious women’s rights crusader and Planned Parenthood pioneer Margaret Sanger and her intellectual heiress, Katharine Dexter McCormick. The twists and turns of producing a birth control pill in the mid-20th century mirrored astonishing changes in the cultural landscapes: Eig notes how, in July 1959, the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and G.D. Searle’s request for FDA approval of Enovid presaged a “tidal wave that would sweep away the nation’s culture of restraint.” Eig’s fascinating narrative of medical innovation paired so perfectly with social revolution befits a remarkable chapter of human history. (Oct.)
T. J. Stiles
“'The pill' is that rare invention that transforms the world. In this gripping book, Jonathan Eig tells how an unlikely group—Margaret Sanger, Katherine McCormick, Dr. Gregory Pincus, and Dr. John Rock—came together to achieve a scientific breakthrough and win acceptance for it in the face of intense opposition. The Birth of the Pill is vivid, compelling, and important.”
T.J. Stiles
“The Pill is that rare invention that transforms the world. In this gripping book, Jonathan Eig tells how an unlikely group—Margaret Sanger, Katherine McCormick, Dr. Gregory Pincus, and Dr. John Rock—came together to achieve a scientific breakthrough and win acceptance for it in the face of intense opposition. The Birth of the Pill is vivid, compelling, and important.”
Chicago Tribune
“[S]urprisingly gripping.”
Joan Smith - The Guardian
“Brilliant… [it] often reads like a thriller as funds runs out, clinical trials stall and politicians, including John F. Kennedy, shy away from the hot potato of birth control… its advocates deserve this vivid and life-affirming history.”
Library Journal
07/01/2014
Journalist Eig (Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig) chronicles the individuals most responsible for the development of Enovid, the first FDA-approved oral contraceptive, in the 1950s. These are doctor Gregory Pincus, the scientist who founded the research-focused Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology after being dismissed from Harvard University; Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood; Katharine McCormick, the millionaire who bankrolled the research; and doctor John Rock, a gynecologist who helped with research and promotion. Eig situates the four among the changing cultural and legal attitudes toward sex, contraception, and the role of women in the home and society, arguing that while the pill did not start the sexual revolution—despite the book's subtitle—it was a major aspect of it. Additionally, the author examines ties among eugenics and population concerns and the development of the pill, noting the complex and questionable attitudes toward the poor and minorities held by activists such as Sanger. VERDICT More biography than science, this work will appeal to readers interested in popular history and cultural shifts during the 1950s. However, those seeking information on the biological and pharmaceutical aspects of birth control pills will be disappointed.—Evan M. Anderson, Kirkendall P.L., Ankeny, IA
Kirkus Reviews
2014-05-07
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig (Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster, 2010, etc.) recounts the origin story of the oral contraceptive—"the pill"—as a scientific answer to a cultural conundrum: how to have sex without pregnancy. Margaret Sanger (1879-1996), a wily, independent feminist and sex educator who kept her own apartment after marrying oil tycoon James Noah Slee in 1922, was a lifelong advocate for giving women the ability to enjoy sex without the worry of pregnancy. Eig opens in 1950 with Sanger, "an old woman who loved sex," looking to science for a contraceptive that women could control (unlike the condom) and that was extremely effective (unlike the diaphragm). She sought out Gregory Pincus (1903-1967), a former Harvard University biologist denied tenure and pilloried in the press as a "Victor Frankenstein" for his efforts to mate rabbits in a petri dish, experiments that were the forerunners to in vitro fertilization. With starter funding from Sanger, Pincus developed a hormone treatment for rabbits and rats that prevented ovulation, and Sanger enlisted philanthropist and suffragist Katharine McCormick (1875-1967) to fund Pincus' development of a similar hormone treatment to do the same for women. Gynecologist John Rock (1890-1984), the fourth "crusader," teamed with Pincus on his research; by the mid-1950s, they developed a working trial of what is now universally known as "the pill." Throughout the book, Eig displays a readable, contemporary style as he chronicles a similar clash of scientific and social progress as Thomas Maier's Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Master and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love (2009). A well-paced, page-turning popular history featuring a lively, character-driven blend of scientific discovery and gender politics.
Randi Hutter Epstein
“Jonathan Eig turns the history of the pill into a smart and spicy account of the unlikely bonds that linked a millionaire activist, a free-loving crusader, a Roman Catholic gynecologist, and a maverick scientist. The Birth of the Pill is at once intelligent, well researched, witty, and captivating… [A] unique prism into the changing morals about sex, women, and marriage in 20th century America.”
New York Times (Editor’s Choice)
“Eig’s nimbly paced cultural history shows that the pill’s genesis was anything but simple.”
Irin Carmon - New York Times Book Review
“[Eig] brings a lively, jocular approach to the story, casting an unlikely four-part ensemble comedy starring Sanger; the iconoclastic lead scientist, Gregory Goodwin Pincus; the Roman Catholic physician John Rock; and the supplier of cash behind it all, Katharine McCormick.”
Ashley Nelson - San Francisco Chronicle
“A fascinating look into the evolution of medical practices, funding and ethics [and] an intricate portrait of how completely women’s reproductive lives are woven into our culture in disturbing and contradictory ways.”
Kate Manning - Washington Post
“Masterful… when legislatures and courts threaten to negate the miracles of science and human progress so dazzlingly portrayed here, Eig’s book is essential reading.”
Anna Holmes - Los Angeles Times
“Dynamic, highly engrossing… As hard as it is to put down The Birth of the Pill’s story of four privileged individuals’ thrilling quest for better living through science, it’s imperative to remember the scores of women lost to history whose flesh and blood helped make it a reality.”
Hannah Levintova - Mother Jones
“The pill is utterly ordinary today. The story of how we got here is anything but.”
Emily Witt - Bookforum
“Eig’s research is thorough and his account exhaustive.”
Bookriot
“Narrative nonfiction at its best… A fascinating and thorough look at one of the most important innovations of the 20th century.”
Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe
“Eig’s stylish storytelling makes this a fresh, infectiously readable take.”
Meredith Counts - Bust
“Who knew that the history of oral contraceptives could rival a good procedural drama, with a scrappy group of believers racing against time?”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Aside from being a fascinating look into the evolution of medical practices, funding and ethics, Eig’s book is an intricate portrait of how completely women’s lives are weaved into our culture in disturbing and contradictory ways.”
Margaret Talbot - New Yorker
“Absorbing… One of the book’s great strengths—accomplished through his smart choice of lead characters—is the depiction of how arduous it is to make real social change.”
New York Times (Editors Choice)
“Eig’s nimbly paced cultural history shows that the pill’s genesis was anything but simple.”
Josh Modell - The Onion A.V. Club
“Detailed, compelling history… Eig does a remarkable job of keeping the science and the storytelling in harmony.”
Kevin Nance - Chicago Tribune
“[S]urprisingly gripping.”
Laura Pearson - Chicago Tribune
“An impassioned cultural history.”
Donna Seaman - Booklist (starred review)
“An engrossing and paramount chronicle… [Eig] brings his keen understanding of competition and outlawry, his affinity for rebels, and vigorous and vivid writing style to this dramatic tale of strong personalities, radical convictions, and world-altering scientific and social breakthroughs.”
Ken Burns
“Suspense-filled and beautifully written…an irresistible tale.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“Excellent.”
Alan W. Petrucelli - Examiner.com
“Fascinating… Weaving medical, corporate, and political history with rich biographical detail, Eig turns the history of the pill into a scientific suspense story full of profoundly human characters. The result is cultural history at its finest.”
Molly Langmuir - Elle
“A tale of scientific progress and social change as engaging and gripping as any suspense novel.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393073720
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/13/2014
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 67,694
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig, a former reporter at the Wall Street Journal, is the best-selling author of The Birth of the Pill, Luckiest Man, Opening
Day, and Get Capone. He lives in
Chicago with his wife and children.

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