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Books, Journals, New Media
December 5, 2001

Contraception: Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorDavid H.MorseMS, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


Not Available

JAMA. 2001;286(21):2738. doi:10.1001/jama.286.21.2738

Imagine an extensively referenced book with "chemistry" in the title that would keep you reading, even late into the night. Such was my reaction to this wonderful book by Lara Marks, an English historian who has put the history of oral contraceptives into the context of its time.

Marks interweaves the determination of two remarkable women, Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick, with the efforts of scientists and industry. Sanger and McCormick's interest in female contraception coincided with the efforts of nascent pharmaceutical industries working to isolate, synthesize, and produce sex hormones for purposes unrelated to birth control. Much of the research was done in fairly primitive laboratories by scientists making creative use of natural resources, such as the inedible hairy Mexican yam, the first commercially viable source of progesterone. The main characters in oral contraceptive development and testing had vastly different personalities and backgrounds, including refugees from Nazi Germany and a Boston Brahmin. During the period of hormone discovery and development, the commercial steroid industry changed hands and names with a frequency reminiscent of contemporary takeovers.