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Home Feature On this date in 1960: US FDA approved the birth control pill

On this date in 1960: US FDA approved the birth control pill

Farm Machinery fortune fueled successful research

On May 9, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the world’s first commercially produced birth-control pill—Enovid-10, made by the G.D. Searle Company of Chicago, Illinois.


Billions of women and their partners word-wide can thank International Harvester Heiress Katherine McCormick for largely single-handedly putting up the money that allowed Gregory Pincus and John Rock to develop the pill. She was a friend and admirer of Margaret Sanger who was a foremost advocate for birth control since 1916 and who hoped to encourage the development of a more practical and effective alternative to contraceptives that were in use at the time.

In the early 1950s, Gregory Pincus, a biochemist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, and John Rock, a gynecologist at Harvard Medical School, began work on a birth-control pill. Clinical tests of the pill, which used synthetic progesterone and estrogen to repress ovulation in women, were initiated in 1954. On May 9, 1960, the FDA approved the pill, granting greater reproductive freedom to American women.

Heiress and women’s rights advocate

Katherine and Stanley McCormick

Katherine McCormick’s life is interesting in her own right. Born into a prosperous family, she graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology– not common for women in 1904—and the same year married Stanley McCormick, the millionaire scion of the farm machinery giant, International Harvester. Unfortunately, Stanley was diagnosed with a degenerative mental illness in 1909 and he was placed into care.

From the beginning Catherine was an advocate for gender equality, refusing an MIT dictum that women wear fashionable hats in class. In 1909 she addressed her first suffragette rally, and became head of the American Women Suffrage Association. In 1917 she met Margaret Sanger and began working with her on birth control issues. Travelling to Europe she smuggled over 1,000 diaphragms beck into the US where they were illegal. They were sewn into the linings of fashionable coats and other garments. She smuggled them past U.S. customs agents in New York, having successfully disguised them as the spoils of extravagant European shopping sprees.

Single handedly funded pill research after Pharma bailed

Suffragette Katherine McCormick

In the late 1920’s she became interested in endocrinology, hoping it might provide a cure for her husband’s dementia. She established a research foundation in the subject at Harvard. In 1953 McCormick met Gregory Goodwin Pincus through Margaret Sanger. Pincus had been working on developing a hormonal birth control method since 1951 and his own research laboratory, the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. The drug company that supported Pincus stopped funding his pioneering research because he had yet to make a profit. As a result, McCormick started to fund Pincus’s research foundation. The donations started at $100,000 annually, and later $150,000-$180,000 up until her death in 1967. In sum, McCormick had provided the equivalent of $20 million in today’s dollars for the development of the oral contraceptive pill. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of the Pill in 1957 for menstrual disorders and added contraception to its indications in 1960. Even after the pill was approved, she continued to fund Pincus’s lab and research on ways into improving birth control research through the 1960s. Katherine McCormick died in 1967 at age 92, having arguably contributed to the biggest societal sexual revolution to that date mostly while in her 70’s and 80’s. During the launch of the pill, media attention focused on the scientists who developed it, scant notice was made of the person who had almost single-handedly funded the research, McCormick’s death was not covered by any major US newspaper.


Katherine lived to see a bit of the swinging 60’s, but was gone before the hedonistic 70’s and 80’s. Still, there is a generation of grandmothers and grandfathers still with us who have some interesting stories to tell but probably won’t. Nonetheless, they all owe a debt of gratitude to Katherine McCormick and the International Harvester fortune.

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