You don’t think it possible because it all seems so obvious, but on May 9, 2010 it was almost fifty years ago that the pill was put on the market. It was the moment the woman had been waiting for for so long: sexual freedom! And say that the pill was originally only intended to solve menstrual problems.
The first remedies
To prevent unwanted pregnancy, women throughout history have tried a whole range of remedies. In 2000 BC, Egyptian women ingested a mixture of pomegranate seeds, which contain a natural estrogen, and wax to prevent ovulation . Chinese women drank mercury, a poisonous substance to remove any unborn fruit.
Later, all kinds of tampons (with gum arabic and dates or soaked in lemon juice) and cervix masks were used (with halves of sour fruits such as lemon, for example), but also methods such as vaginal douches in which the sperm was tested with soap, vinegar or other solutions. to rinse away. But they were not always really effective and it had to wait until the mid-twentieth century before a real contraceptive was developed.
The long road to the pill
- Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was a microbiologist who examined everything that could be examined with a microscope. In 1678 he discovered in the man’s semen a multitude of teeming animals with tails. According to him, they were ‘the’ life bearers. He was convinced that the thick part already contained a small organism that would later develop into a human being.
- The egg cell was discovered in 1827 by the embryologist Karl Ernst von Baer (1791-1876). He described how a human being is created in that egg cell. The ‘animals’ that Van Leeuwenhoek had discovered and had until then been described as such, were called spermatozoid by Von Baer (‘ sperm ‘ is male sperm, ‘ zoide ‘ comes from the Greek ‘zoion’, which means ‘animal’).
- Martin Barry (1802-1855) published a text in which he made one of his most revolutionary discoveries known to the world: in ‘ On the Penetration of Spermatazoa into the Interior of the Ovum ‘ he talked about sperm found in some egg cells. This discovery influenced the theories of fertilization of Theodor Bischoff (1807-1882) but it was not until 1876 that Oscar Hertwig (1849-1922) described the fertilization of an egg by fusion with sperm.
- The chemist Rusell Marker (1902-1995) discovered in 1943 that synthetic progesterone could be extracted from plants and crops. The hormone progesterone changes the mucus in the cervix in such a way that it makes it difficult for sperm cells to enter the uterus and inhibits ovulation. However, Marker had not yet found a plant that contained enough of this substance to allow mass production. In the Mexican jungle he found a cassava root that allowed him to produce progesterone cheaply. In this way he supplied the basic material for the production of the pill. Originally it could only be administered via numerous painful injections, but Frank Colton (1923-2003) and Carl Djerassi (1923) succeeded in developing an orally administered version in the early 1950s.
- In 1944, biologist Gregory Pincus (1903-1967) and gynecologist John Rock (1890-1984) decided to work together to develop a contraceptive. Eleven years later they reported their findings at a family planning conference in Tokyo.
- In the meantime, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and Katharine McCormick (1875-1967) had become friends. Margaret Sanger had lost her mother to uterine cancer, the result of eighteen pregnancies, she thought. Katherine McCormick’s husband suffered from schizophrenia. Because it was not certain whether this disease was hereditary, she looked for a way to prevent her from having children. Sanger and McCormick became allies in their quest. In 1952, Sanger met Pincus who told her about his research and a year later McCormick gave the two scientists a check for $40,000 for the development of a birth control pill.
- Pincus noted in 1953 that progesterone inhibited ovulation in rabbits. Three years later he discovered that the hormone could also prevent pregnancies in humans. Building on Marker’s discovery, the scientists succeeded in their aim. In 1957 , Enovid was launched on the market based on their findings. It was actually a remedy for menstrual disorders. The developers’ intention was to suspend ovulation for about four months, so that the woman would be extremely fertile in response in the fifth month. The original ‘pill’ was actually a tool for women who had trouble getting pregnant and was not developed for women’s sexual freedom. Because many women suddenly suffered from irregular cycles, the Searle company, which produced Enovid, was able to seriously increase its production in the short term.
- In 1960, Searle decided to change course and promote Enovid as a contraceptive. On May 9, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the hormonal contraceptive. The pill was launched a year later in Belgium, and two years later in the Netherlands. Since then, the contraceptive has become commonplace.