Foundation Fellow Lecture Focuses on the History of the Pill

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‘Failure to acknowledge the historical context perpetuates asymmetry in risk assessment, even today’

The birth control pill gave women unprecedented power in their reproductive destinies.

The pill also shaped pathological theory, as well as understandings of the role of estrogens in health and disease, says Kate Grauvogel, 2016-2017 Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation Fellow.

Grauvogel, an advanced doctoral student in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine Department at Indiana University-Bloomington, lectured on June 15 at Harvard Medical School at an annual event presented by the Foundation and our collaborator, the Countway Library’s Archives for Women in Medicine. Her topic: Gender and Risk Perception in the Development of Oral Contraceptives, 1940-1968.

Her fellowship, which included the opportunity for immersive research at the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countwell Library, provided invaluable insights on the development of the pill and the idea that fluctuations in estrogens could lead to the formation of dangerous blood clots.

“The story of the pill and its risks is often told in a way that reinforces unhelpful stereotypes about women, fails to interrogate the uneven metrics that were used to calculate risk, and neglects the range of participation by women, and is quick to blame developers of the pill,” she said. “Failure to acknowledge these historical problems and tensions perpetuates asymmetry in risk assessment, even today.”

Her research included the papers of Clarence Gamble, M.D., heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune and an early advocate of contraception. In a letter to Dr. Gamble in 1956, Katherine McCormick, the biologist, suffragist and philanthropist who funded much of the research to develop the pill, expresses enthusiasm at the progress made.

“It seems to me that the outlook for a successful oral contraceptive is greatly improved during the last two months since the steroid hormones allied to progesterone have entered the human experiments,” she writes. “They are more powerful and as yet have shown no untoward effects. As their application becomes more widespread we shall be able to gauge them more accurately and I have great hopes that this will happen without undue delay.”

The Countway collections also include documents from John Charles Rock, M.D., a physician and birth control advocate, chronicling his efforts to reduce side effects by reducing hormone levels in the pill. Grauvogel also gained insights from 1992 records from the Free Hospital for Women in Brookline, Mass.

Her research interests include the history of women’s health, especially pathology and psychiatry in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current research focuses on women and experimentation in medicine, particularly the history of blood clotting disorders in reproductive-age women. Her dissertation is titled “A gendered history of pathology: blood clots, women, and hormones in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

“I want to acknowledge the complexity of the pill debate to show how doctors thought about connections between hormones and blood clotting,” she said.

Interested? Subscribe to the Foundation to download the Full Perspective, an e-book with additional content from the lecture and on the topic.

Alicia Lazzaro