Time line of birth control
 

25,000 BCE. Evidence at archaeological digs suggests women used the moon cycles for birth control as a rhythm method. Evidence indicates peaceful, partnership relationships between the sexes.

10,000 – 13,000 BCE cave painting in France's grottes des combarelles of a man using a condom-like covering during sexual intercourse. A similar illustration from Egypt about 1000 BCE.

1550 BCE Egyptian Ebers Medical Papyrus names two remedies to induce a miscarriage.

In the Bible the book of Genesis reports coitus interruptus, commonly known as the "withdrawal" method.

421 BCE Aristophanes in two comedies says the herb pennyroyal permits sex without pregnancy.

384–322 BCE The Greek philosopher Aristotle is thought to be the first person to propose using natural chemicals such as cedar oil, lead ointment or frankincense oil as spermicides.

23–79 C.E. Pliny, the Roman writer of Natural History, counsels his readers to refrain from sex to avoid pregnancy. He is the first known advocate of abstinence as a form of birth control.

1725–1798 Casanova includes in his memoirs details of his experimental forms of birth control. He recounts his attempts to use the empty rind of half a lemon as a primitive cervical cap.

1827 In a major scientific breakthrough, scientists discover the existence of the female egg -- the ovum. Prior to this, it is only known that semen must enter the female body for conception to occur. This is the first step in understanding the science of human reproduction.

1832 Charles Knowlton, a Massachusetts physician, invents a birth control solution to be injected into the uterus by syringe after intercourse. Various recipes for the water-based solution include salt, vinegar, liquid chloride, zinc sulfite or aluminum potassium sulfite. The syringe method will remain in popular use for the next 40 years.

1838 A German doctor, Friedrich Wilde, offers patients a small cervical cap to cover the cervix between menstrual periods. This method is never widely adopted, but the "Wilde Cap," as it became known, is the precursor to the modern diaphragm.

1839 Charles Goodyear invents the technology to vulcanize rubber and puts it to use manufacturing rubber condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, and "womb veils" (diaphragms).

1843 Scientists learn that conception occurs in human reproduction when the sperm enters the female egg. Prior to this it was assumed that men created life and women just provided the home for it. Now, both are actively needed.

1870's A wide assortment of birth control devices are available in America -- such as condoms, sponges, douching syringes, diaphragms and cervical caps -- from catalogs, pharmacists, dry-goods stores and even rubber vendors.

1873 March 2: Congress passes the Comstock Law, an anti-obscenity act that specifically lists contraceptives as obscene material and outlaws the dissemination of them via the postal service or interstate commerce. At the time, the United States is the only western nation to enact laws criminalizing birth control.

1875 Scientists conclude definitively that for human fertilization to occur there must be a union of the egg and the sperm.

People who are critical in the development of modern birth control

1875 Katharine Dexter McCormick is born in August into a wealthy and prominent family in Dexter, Michigan.

1879 Born Maggie Louise Higgins, Margaret Sanger becomes the sixth child of a poor, working class, Irish Catholic immigrant family in Corning, New York.

1880 Dr. Wilhelm Mensinga, a German scientist, invents a larger cervical cap. His model will gain widespread popularity and come to be known as "the diaphragm."

1886 The first commercially manufactured birth control suppository is produced in England by London chemist W. J. Rendell. The quinine and "cacao-nut butter" suppository, known as "Rendell's," was somewhat effective and commonly used in England until World War II.

1890 March 24: John Rock and twin sister Eleanor are born in Marlborough, Massachusetts to a working class Irish Catholic family.

Viennese gynecologist Emil Knauer discovers the existence of chemicals that control the body's metabolic processes. After he observes a wide variety of these chemical substances, in 1905 the mysterious chemicals are named hormones, from the Greek hormaô, "stir up" or "incite.".

Early in the 20th Century most "mainline" Protestant churches started supporting contraception.  The Methodist statement is: “Each couple has the right and duty prayerfully and responsively to control conception according to their circumstances.  They are…free to use those means of birth control considered medically safe.…”

1903 Gregory Pincus is born in Woodbine, New Jersey to Russian Jewish immigrants.

1904 Katharine McCormick, after majoring in biology, becomes one of the first women to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in science. Despite her accomplishment, she does not pursue a career and marries Stanley McCormick, heir to the International Harvester Company fortune.

1906 McCormick's husband is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fearing his disease is hereditary, McCormick vows never to have children and develops a staunch belief in the value of contraception.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is established to protect consumers from fraudulent medical products and quackery.

1912 Margaret Sanger, now a nurse on New York's Lower East Side, dreams about finding a "magic pill" as easy to take as an aspirin that could be used for contraceptive purposes.

1914 March: In her radical journal The Woman Rebel, Margaret Sanger instructs women on times when it would be wise for women to avoid pregnancy, such as in the case of illness or poverty. She does not give any instructions regarding specific methods for contraception, but the New York City postmaster bans the journal under the Comstock Law category of "obscene, lewd, lascivious" matter.

August: Margaret Sanger coins the term "birth control" and dares to use the phrase in the June 1914 issue of The Woman Rebel. For this crime and others, Sanger is indicted for nine violations of the Comstock Law. Rather than face the charges, she flees the country to continue her work in England.

1915 Anthony Comstock dies, but his anti-birth control laws remain entrenched.

March: In New York City a group of women form the National Birth Control League, an antecedent of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

1916 Sanger returns to New York to face trial. The charges against her are dropped, but she continues to challenge the Comstock Laws and brazenly launches a new publication dedicated to her cause, Birth Control Review.

Oct.16: Sanger, with her sister and a friend, opens the first birth control clinic in America, in Brooklyn, New York. For the first time in American history, women can receive organized instruction in birth control.

Oct. 26: After only 10 days, Sanger's clinic is raided by the vice squad and shut down. The women are arrested and all the condoms and diaphragms at the clinic are confiscated.

1917 Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick first meet at one of Sanger's Boston lectures, and strike up an enduring friendship. Sympathizing with Sanger's movement, McCormick makes small contributions to the cause and smuggles diaphragms into the United States for Sanger's clinics.

1918 The Crane decision, in the case against Sanger's operation of the clinic, is the first legal ruling to allow birth control to be used for therapeutic purposes.

1920 August: The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified, giving women the right to vote.

1921 Margaret Sanger establishes the American Birth Control League, the antecedent of the Planned Parent Federation of America.

1923 Margaret Sanger successfully opens the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. with the stated intent of only using contraceptives for medical purposes, such as the prevention of life-threatening pregnancies and in accordance with the Crane decision.

1920's Scientists working independently in Japan (1924) and Austria (1927) devise the "Rhythm Method" of birth control. After figuring out that women are fertile approximately midway through the average menstrual cycle, they conclude that pregnancy can be avoided by abstaining from sex during that fertile period. The first entry, above, women may have used the moon's cycle for a rhythm method long ago!

1924 After graduating from Harvard Medical School and completing a residency in surgery and internships in maternity medicine and gynecology, Dr. John Rock is appointed an assistant in obstetrics at Harvard Medical School. He focuses his practice on treating women with fertility problems at Boston clinics.

1926 Scientists make a crucial breakthrough in reproductive biology. The discovery that the pituitary gland functions as a "remote control system in human reproduction" leads directly to the invention of the first pregnancy test.

1928 Almost 30 years after the discovery of hormones, scientists at the University of Rochester in New York identify progesterone, the ovarian hormone. They conclude that this hormone plays a crucial role in preparing the womb for and sustaining a pregnancy.

1929 The human sex hormone estrogen is isolated and identified by Edward Doisy at Washington University in St. Louis.

1930's During the Great Depression, companies eager to sell women contraceptives, but not permitted to by law, use the term "feminine hygiene" to market a wide array of over-the-counter products that are believed to have a contraceptive effect. Many are ineffective and dangerous method to prevent pregnancy.

1930 Gregory Pincus receives an appointment at Harvard University to teach in department of general physiology.

August 15: At the world assembly of Anglican bishops, known as the Lambeth Conference, a resolution is passed favoring limited acceptance of birth control. This resolution is a watershed for Protestant Churches.

December 31: The Roman Catholic Church makes its first definitive statement on birth control. Pope Pius XI issues an encyclical titled Casti Canubi (Of Chaste Marriage) calling birth control a sin, and opposing birth control by any artificial means.

1931 In her dogged pursuit of birth control legalization, Margaret Sanger targets Massachusetts' puritanical laws. A petition is circulated to end the state's anti-birth control law. It is defeated, but Dr. John Rock is one of 15 physicians -- and the only Catholic -- to sign petition.

1934 While an assistant professor at Harvard University, Gregory Pincus gains fame and notoriety at the age of 31 when he claims to have achieved in-vitro fertilization of rabbits. Pincus is vilified in the national press for tampering with life. Harvard does not grant Pincus tenure.

1936 Margaret Sanger orchestrates a court battle over a shipment of Japanese diaphragms to a doctor in the U.S. In a decision titled U.S. vs. One Package, the court rules that physicians can receive contraceptive devices and information via the mail unless prohibited by a specific local law. It is a major victory for Sanger and birth control advocates. The case legitimizes birth control commerce among the medical profession and leads to the American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognizing birth control as part of a doctor's medical practice.

1940's While teaching at Harvard Medical School, Dr. John Rock engages in unheard of and subversive activities, covertly breaking Massachusetts' law by teaching medical school students about birth control.

The diaphragm is the most effective form of birth control available in America, but the least popular method due to its high cost and the need to see a physician. Instead, most women rely on inexpensive but less reliable commercial douches for contraception.

1941 Chemistry professor Russell Marker discovers a way to make synthetic progesterone with Mexican wild yams known as cabeza de negro. His discovery makes progesterone production affordable and will become the basis for hormonal birth control.

1944 Together with a former colleague from his Harvard days, Gregory Pincus founds a small, private laboratory in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, to pursue research away from the politics and restraints of academia.

1945 Harvard endocrinologist Fuller Albright writes a seminal report that will come to be known as "Albright's Prophecy." As part of an analysis of serious menstrual disorders, he writes that preventing ovulation prevents pregnancy and explores the possibility of "birth control by hormone therapy."

1947 Katharine McCormick's husband dies, giving her full control over his fortune.

1949 Although still a devout Catholic, John Rock co-authors the book Voluntary Parenthood, aimed at explaining birth control methods to a general audience tired of coping with unwanted pregnancies.

1950's Americans spend an estimated $200 million a year on contraceptives. Due to massive improvements over the past decade in condom quality and a growing awareness of the inadequacies of douches, "rubbers" are the most popular form of birth control on the market.

Although the vast majority of doctors approve of birth control for the good of families, anti-birth control laws on the books in thirty states still prohibit or restrict the sale and advertisement of contraceptive devices. It is a felony in Massachusetts to "exhibit, sell, prescribe, provide, or give out information" about them. In Connecticut, it is a crime for a couple to use contraception.

1950 October: At the age of 75, Katharine McCormick turns her full attention to the problem of birth control. She writes Margaret Sanger a letter inquiring about current research and asks where her money might be best spent funding efforts to improve birth control.

The Catholic Church remains resolutely opposed to artificial birth control, but Pope Pius XII announces that the Church will sanction the use of the rhythm method as a natural form of birth control. Previously, the only option approved by Rome was abstinence.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America runs 200 birth control clinics. Margaret Sanger has been successful in fighting legal restrictions on contraceptives, and birth control has gained wide acceptance in America. Still, Sanger remains deeply unsatisfied, because women have no better methods for birth control than they did when she first envisioned "the pill" over 40 years earlier.

January/February: Margaret Sanger, now 72 years old, makes one last ditch effort to find someone to invent her "magic pill." At a dinner party in New York City she is introduced to Gregory Pincus and implores him to take up her quest. To her surprise, he tells her that it might be possible with hormones, but that he will need significant funding to proceed.

April 25: Sanger manages to secure a tiny grant for Gregory Pincus from Planned Parenthood, and Pincus begins initial work on the use of hormones as a contraceptive at The Worcester Foundation. Pincus sets out to prove his hypothesis that injections of the hormone progesterone will inhibit ovulation and thus prevent pregnancy in his lab animals.

October: Pincus goes to the drug company G.D. Searle and requests additional funding from them for the pill project. Searle's director of research tells Pincus that his previous work for them was "a lamentable failure" and refuses to invest in the project.

October 15: A chemist named Carl Djerassi working out of an obscure lab in Mexico City creates an orally effective form of a progesterone pill. Neither Djerassi nor the company he works for, Syntex, has any interest in testing it as a contraceptive.

1952 January: In less than a year, Pincus confirms that progesterone works as an anti-ovulent in rabbits and rats. He informs Planned Parenthood of his findings and requests more funding. The organization, deciding his work is too risky, decides not to continue funding his research. The Pill project stagnates for lack of funding.

Frank Colton, chief chemist at G.D. Searle, independently develops another oral form of synthetic progesterone.

At a scientific conference, Pincus has a chance encounter with the renowned Harvard obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. John Rock. Pincus is astonished to learn that Rock has already been testing the chemical contraceptive on women and demonstrating that it works. Rock has been giving the same drug to his infertility patients with the eventual goal of stimulating pregnancy after his patients finish a 3 to 5 month regimen of progesterone injections.

1953 June 8: Sanger realizes McCormick can fund Pincus' research and brings her to Shrewsbury to meet the scientist. The visit is a huge success. Katharine McCormick writes Pincus a check for a huge sum -- $40,000 -- with assurances she will provide him with all the additional funding he will need. The Pill project is restarted.

1954 Pincus knows progesterone will work, but in order to get FDA approval he will need to test the drug on humans, which only a clinical doctor can do. Finally with adequate funding at hand, Pincus joins forces with Dr. John Rock to test the drug on Rock's female patients. In Massachusetts, a state with extremely restrictive anti-birth control laws, Rock and Pincus begin the first human trials with 50 women, under the guise of a fertility study. Searle provides the pills for the trial.

The Pill regimen still in use today is established. Pincus persuades Rock to administer the progesterone for only 21 days, followed by a 7-day break to allow for menstruation. They know the Pill will be controversial and want oral progesterone to be seen as a "natural " process, not something that interferes with the normal menstrual cycle.

1955 The results from the first human trials are conclusive. Not one of the 50 women in the experiment ovulates while on the drug. Pincus and Rock are positive that they have found the perfect oral birth control pill.

October: Margaret Sanger invites Gregory Pincus to the 5th Annual International Planned Parenthood League conference in Tokyo, Japan, where Pincus announces the results of his progesterone study. Despite the magnitude of his announcement, the press at the conference remains skeptical and does not pick up the story.

December: At the prestigious Laurentian Conference on Endocrinology in Canada, before an audience of scientists involved in hormone research, Rock presents a paper stating that the progesterone pill inhibits ovulation. Word spreads quickly through the scientific world and drug industry that Pincus and Rock have found a birth control pill.

1956 April: Since anti-birth control laws in Massachusetts and many other states make it impossible for Rock to conduct the larger human studies necessary for FDA approval, Rock and Pincus launch the first large scale clinical trials for the Pill in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

November: The news of the Pill spreads to the general public. An article in Science magazine informs readers that women have taken a synthetic hormone as an oral contraceptive and it works.

1957 Summer: The FDA approves the use of Enovid for the treatment of severe menstrual disorders and requires the drug label to carry the warning that Enovid will prevent ovulation.

1959 Less than two years after FDA approval of Enovid for therapeutic purposes, an unusually large number of American women mysteriously develop severe menstrual disorders and ask their doctors for the drug. By late 1959, over half a million American women are taking Enovid, presumably for the "off-label" contraceptive purposes.

Oct. 29: Excited by the vast potential market for the Pill, Searle files an application with the FDA to license the 10 milligram Enovid -- the same pill approved for menstrual disorders -- for use as a contraceptive. The application is based on field trials with 897 women, making it one of the most extensively tested drugs to ever come before the FDA for approval.

1960 With an eye on maximizing profits, Searle attempts to license lower doses of Enovid (2.5 and 5 milligram doses), but the FDA demands complete field trials for the lower dose versions as well.

Winter: The FDA reviews Searle's application for the first drug in history to be given to a healthy person for long-term use. Searle is doing $37 million in annual sales of the Pill for "menstrual disorders" and pushes the FDA for approval.

April: John Rock tells the national press that the Pill, since it simply extends a woman's "safe period," should be considered an extension of the Vatican-approved rhythm method.

May 11: Searle receives FDA approval to sell Enovid as a birth control pill. Searle is the first and only pharmaceutical company to sell an oral contraceptive and it has a lucrative monopoly.

1960's As soon as Searle completes the requisite field tests demonstrating the effectiveness of the Pill at lower doses, the FDA approves the drug for contraceptive use at 2.5 and 5 milligrams.

The pharmaceutical industry awakens to the huge market for effective contraception, and 13 major drug companies, nine of them American, work to develop new birth control methods and their own versions of the Pill.

1961 December: It is still a crime to use birth control in Connecticut. In bold defiance of Connecticut law, Dr. C. Lee Buxton, the chairman of the Yale Medical School department of obstetrics and gynecology, and Estelle Griswold, the executive director of Connecticut Planned Parenthood, open four Planned Parenthood Clinics. They are promptly arrested, but their case brings national attention to the anachronistic state laws. See 1965 below for Supreme Court action.

1962 With 1.2 million American women on the Pill, Searle's corner on the Pill market comes to an end. Syntex receives FDA approval to sell the drug Carl Djerassi developed in the 1950s under the trade name Ortho Novum.

September 1: Word of serious side effects, such as blood clots and heart attacks caused by the Pill, begins to spread. Searle receives reports of 132 blood clots, including 11 deaths, but the company declares that there is no conclusive evidence demonstrating that the blood clots are a direct result of the Pill.

1963 2.3 million American women are using the Pill; see Loretta Lynn's song!

In his crusade to make the Pill acceptable to the Catholic church, John Rock publishes The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposal to End the Battle over Birth Control, and becomes the de facto public spokesman for the Pill.

1964 One quarter of all couples in America using birth control choose the Pill. Parke-Davis, another drug company eager for a share of the market, sells its version of the Pill. Despite the competition, Searle earns $24 million in net profits from Pill sales, but neither Gregory Pincus nor the Worcester Institute receive any royalties.

Less than a decade after President Eisenhower declared that the government should not get involved with birth control, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushes through legislation for federal support of birth control for the poor in Title X that conservative religious target.

The Pill becomes the most popular form of reversible birth control in America.

Despite general public approval for birth control, ghosts of the Comstock Laws linger. Eight states still prohibit the sale of contraceptives, and laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut still prevent the dissemination of information about birth control.

1965 June 7: Estelle Griswold and Lee Buxton take their Connecticut case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By a vote of 7-2 in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court strikes down the Connecticut law prohibiting the use of birth control as a violation of a couple's right to privacy.

Just five years after FDA approval, more than 6.5 million American woman are taking oral contraceptives, making the Pill the most popular form of birth control in the U.S. Searle still dominates the market, and does $89 million in sales of Enovid.

—From PBS American Experience

See my suggestions to parents about sex education


Nevertheless, warned Judge Frederick E. Crane, the law does not allow even doctors to advertise such matters or to give "promiscuous advice to patients irrespective of their condition." It does protect a doctor who "gives such help or advice to a married person to cure or prevent disease."

With these words, Crane upheld Sanger's conviction under the New York obscenity law--laypeople could not distribute information on birth control without violating the 1873 Comstock Act. However, by claiming that the Comstock Act provided for a medical "exception," Crane established the right of doctors to provide contraceptive advice to married women for "the cure and prevention of disease." (Formerly "disease" meant venereal disease and applied to men only. Crane broadened the interpretation of "disease" to include women's ailments.)

Sanger used Crane's decision to launch a nationwide chain of doctor-staffed birth control clinics, and lobbied for state laws allowing "doctors only" to prescribe contraceptive devices. In 1921, her emboldened American Birth Control League tried to remove all state and federal restrictions on the right of physicians to prescribe birth control devices. Not until United States v. One Package (1936), did Sanger achieve her goal of reversing the Comstock Act's classification of birth control literature as obscene. Thirty-five years later Congress rewrote the statute to remove any mention of birth control. Many states banned the use of contraceptives by married couples until Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), and not until 1972 could unmarried couples legally use birth control devices (Eisenstadt v. Baird)