This Day in Jewish History

1903: The Biologist Who Co-invented The Pill From Yams Is Born

Gregory Pincus was misquoted in Look magazine as saying he anticipated someday creating test-tube humans.

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April 9, 1903, is the birthdate of Gregory Pincus, the biological research scientist who was the co-creator of the birth control pill. It was Pincus whom family planning advocate Margaret Sanger and philanthropist Katharine McCormick approached in 1951 when they were seeking the right person to provide with funding to develop an oral contraceptive.

Gregory Godwin Pincus was the son of Joseph W. Pincus and the former Elizabeth F. Lipman, both of whom came from families of Eastern European background. Gregory’s early years were spent in Woodbine, New Jersey, where Baron Edmond de Hirsch had established one of his Jewish agricultural colony in the United States, in 1891.

Joseph Pincus, an educator and editor of the journal The Jewish Farmer, was one of the leaders of that community. On his mother’s side, too, Gregory had two uncles who were agricultural scientists.

The Pincus family relocated to the Bronx, New York, where Gregory graduated from Morris High School. That was followed by Cornell University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1924, and where he also founded and edited a literary journal. That same year, he married Elizabeth Notkin, a social worker. They had three children.

Pincus obtained both his master’s and a doctorate at Harvard University, where he studied both genetics and physiology. After a three-year fellowship that allowed him to do biological research in Europe, both at Cambridge University and at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biological Studies, he returned to Harvard as an instructor in 1930.

From early on, Pincus’ research focused on reproductive physiology and endocrine systems. By 1934, he had attained national fame for having achieved in vitro fertilization with a rabbit without the participation of a male rabbit, an accomplishment some of his colleagues dubbed “Pincogenesis.” The bunny that resulted from the experiment appeared on the cover of Look magazine, but Pincus was misquoted as saying he anticipated someday creating test-tube humans (the word “not” had been dropped from his quote). The resultant publicity, some of it anti-Semitic in its tone, is thought to have contributed to Harvard’s decision not to grant Pincus tenure.

Instead, Pincus went on to Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and, in 1944, with Clark colleague Hudson Hoagland, established the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.

In 1951, Pincus met Margaret Sanger at a New York dinner hosted by the medical director of the Planned Parenthood Foundation. This led to a small grant given to Pincus and his Worcester colleague Min Chueh Chang to develop a means for producing synthetic progesterone, which had already been identified as a means for preventing multiple pregnancies.

Once they had identified two substances, both derived from the wild Mexican yam, as possible bases for a pill, they then developed an affordable way to produce the pill, and, together with Harvard gynecologist John Rock, undertook the clinical studies required to get FDA approval for using their invention as a contraceptive. Finally, in 1960, Enovid, as the first Pill was commercially known, went into production. It proved to have 100-percent effectiveness.

Gregory Pincus died on August 22, 1967, a victim of myeloid metaplasia, a rare bone-marrow disease thought, in his case to have been caused by exposure to laboratory chemicals. At the time of his death, he and M.C. Chang had been working on a “morning-after” pill.