What started as the 19th century dream of Irish-American nurse Margaret Sanger, became one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century.
Throughout history, women have used some form of birth control. The Bible describes coitus interruptus (the pullout method), and ancient Egyptian women used a primitive form of spermicide. But when the pill was released in 1960, it provided the first safe and reliable form of birth control.
It was immediately a hit, and immediately controversial. Today, the pill is widely credited with launching the sexual revolution and giving a generation of women greater control over their reproductive systems.
Over the last 75 years, the doses have been modified, the formulations have been tweaked, and the administration methods have been reinvented. But the basic science of the birth control pill has remained the same. (To this day, the pill relies on administering estrogen and progesterone in varying doses during specific moments in a woman’s reproductive cycle.) Below, a brief history of how the birth control pill came to exist and has evolved over the years.
1550 B.C.: The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian manuscript, tells women how to combine honey, dates, cotton, and the acacia plant into a paste used for contraception.
1921: Margaret Sanger founds the American Birth Control League which advocated for birth control through education, legislative reform, and research. The organization eventually became Planned Parenthood.
1951: Sanger meets researcher Gregory Pincus at a dinner party in New York. She convinces him to begin researching the birth control pill. They are backed financially by the wealthy heiress, Katharine McCormick. The team pairs with chemist Carl Djerassi, who has created a progesterone pill by synthesizing hormones from Mexican yams. This will become the basis for the modern birth control pill.
1954: Despite fervent opposition from the Catholic church, Dr. John Rock runs clinical trials of the pill on 50 women in Massachusetts.
1956: Large clinical trials of the birth control pill are conducted in Puerto Rico where strict American birth control laws don’t apply.
1957: The FDA approves the First Pill, Enovid. But due to controversy, it is only approved to aid with “menstrual symptoms.”
1960: By the time the FDA finally approves Enovid to be used for contraception, half a million women are already taking it.
1965: It is an instant success. Five years after it was approved by the FDA, 6.5 million women are taking it. The same year, in the landmark Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut, the court struck down a law prohibiting contraception for married people.
1970s: Doctors begin to raise concerns about side effects of the medication, such as blood clots, heart attacks, stroke, and weight gain. The U.S. Senate holds hearings on the safety of the pill, and sales drop.
1980s: In response to health concerns about the pill, lower dose options become popular. The “Mini Pill,” which just contains progestin is introduced.
1998: Plan B, the first approved “emergency contraceptive” becomes available. It functions similarly to the birth control pill, and is essentially a high dose of progestin, which prevents ovulation.
2003: The FDA approves Seasonale, which reduces menstruation from 12 to 4 cycles per year.
2006: Yaz is approved by the FDA and is marketed to help with Acne and PMS. By 2009, Yaz was the best-selling contraceptive on the market.
2016: Manufacturers are looking for new ways to distribute the same medication, and continue to explore new methods such as the patch and NuvaRing, a vaginal ring that can be worn for three months.
2017: Dr. Sujoy Guha, a biomedical engineer in India, has discovered a birth control shot for men designed to kill sperm. However, clinical trials were called off after the risks to the participants were determined to outweigh the benefits.