The Sisters of Mercy

Right around Christmas 2015, I received an email from a reader of The Yankee Road who said her mother had worked with Dr. Gregory Pincus when he was developing ‘the pill’. I thought I’d rewrite a little piece from Chapter 8, leaving out the notes, to summarize the story.

As early as 1913, women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger had wished aloud for a ‘magic pill’ that would allow women to control their own lives by controlling when they might become pregnant. In late 1950, then 71 years of age, Sanger was asked by Abraham Stone, the director of the Clinical Research Bureau, a combined research and practical clinic operation that she controlled, to meet with Dr. Gregory Pincus, who ran a private research lab in Shrewsbury MA. At a dinner meeting in New York City on December 7, Stone introduced Sanger to Pincus and encouraged her to explain her dream. Pincus allowed himself an optimistic response. It was enough to generate a partnership and Sanger began to press various agencies interested in birth control to help fund Pincus’ work.

Money came in slow, small amounts, partly because of the prevailing social and political climate, but also because the ‘magic pill’ sounded like science-fiction to possible donors. Two and a half years after Sanger’s meeting with Pincus, she brought her long-time friend and associate, Katharine Dexter McCormick, to the Shrewsbury facility. Four years Sanger’s senior and now almost 78, the millionaire heiress had been prominent in the last years of the suffragette movement and had supported birth control groups since the 1920s. Pincus needed new support to keep the research lab open and the work ongoing:

They made a contrasting trio. Pincus’ dense bush of graying hair and piercing black, ominously shadowed eyes, almost a caricature of the menacing scientist’s, played against his gentle and observant look of sympathy…Had Pincus not already met Sanger and McCormick separately, he might easily have mistaken one for the other…taking the one who stood almost six feet tall with the military shoulders, swooping brim hat, and ankle-length matron’s skirt to be Sanger, the embattled lifelong radical. But that one was Katharine McCormick…Standing beside her…Margaret Sanger was slight, scarcely five feet tall, with a striking crown of auburn hair…a cautious gaze through wide-apart gray eyes…and a subdued voice’.

McCormick had been the first woman to get a science degree from MIT in biology, and, like Sanger earlier, she had an immediate positive reaction to Pincus. She had experience in organizing activities and immediately began questioning Pincus about the operations of the Foundation, its personnel and a potential budget to make Sanger’s pill a reality. He knew how to satisfy her requirements, and McCormick went on to almost single-handedly fund the millions needed for the ‘invention’ of the birth-control pill, with Sanger providing back-up support through her influence in the birth-control community. McCormick was a constant visitor to the Foundation and followed progress actively. By the time the first version of the pill was approved for sale by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960, these ‘sisters of mercy’ were 84 and 80 years old respectively. They had turned science-fiction into science-fact.


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