Inventor of Birth Control Pills (1903-1967)
Gregory “Goodwin” Pincus was born on April 9, 1903 in Woodbine, New Jersey.
He was the eldest son of Joseph and Elizabeth Lipman Pincus. His father was a farmer as well as a teacher, while his mother was a poor immigrant who had come from Latvia and settled in New Jersey. Pincus was bright from the start and became an honor student at Morris High School where he was the president of the debating and literary clubs. Attending Cornell University after high school, he founded and edited for the Cornell Literary Review. He received his B.S. degree in 1924 and was later accepted into graduate school at Harvard University. He concentrated in genetics under W. E. Castle and animal physiology under W. J. Crozier. These two professors influenced him to study reproductive physiology and in 1927, he received both his Master of Science and Doctorate of Science degrees at the age of twenty-four. He married Elizabeth Notkin on December 2, 1924, the same year he completed his undergraduate degree. Together, they had two children, Alexis and Laura Jane.
Gregory Pincus came in luck in 1927 when he won a three-year fellowship from the National Research Council. He traveled to Cambridge University in England where he worked with F.H.A. Marshall and John Hammond, who were leaders in the field of reproductive biology. He also studied at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute with worldwide geneticist Richard Goldschmidt. In 1930, he returned to Harvard first as an instructor in biology and then moving his way up as an assistant professor.
Pincus did a great deal of research during the early part of his career and concentrated on the inheritance of physiological traits. His research later focused on reproductive physiology, focusing on sex hormones and gonadotrophic hormones. His other research areas included geotropism, the inheritance of diabetes, relationships between hormones and stress, and endocrine function in patients with mental disorders. He also one of the first to contribute for the extensive partial pancreatectomy in rats.
The first conference on hormones sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science was held near Baltimore in the spring of 1943. The conference was held at a private club and because of the segregation during the time period, African American scientist Percy Julian couldn’t lecture in it. Pincus was the first one to protest to the management and Julian was later allowed to join the conference. This conference later would be known as the Laurentian Conference, because it was held in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, Canada. Pincus was its permanent chairperson later on. During his administrative duties, he edited the twenty-three volumes of Recent Progress in Hormone Research, scientific papers presented at the annual conferences.
Oscar Hechter, who met Pincus in 1944 while at the conference wrote in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine that:
"Gregory Pincus belongs to history because he was a man of action who showed the world that the population crisis is not an `impossible' problem. He and his associates demonstrated that there is a way to control birth rates on a large scale, suitable alike for developed and underdeveloped societies. The antifertility steroids which came to be known as the `Pill' were shown to be effective, simple, contraceptive agents, relatively safe, and eminently practical to employ on a large scale."
In 1955, Katherine McCormick funded Gregory Pincus's research into developing an oral contraceptive. Luckily two drug companies, Syntex and Searle, each developed a form of synthetic progesterone. They allowed Pincus to explore use of this female hormone in his work and invent the birth control pill. Pincus spent much of the last fifteen years of his life traveling to explain his results of this research. He had membership in biological and endocrinological societies all around the world including, Portugal, France, Great Britain, Chile, Haiti, and Mexico. His work was also distinguished by awards, such as the Albert D. Lasker Award in Planned Parenthood in 1960 and the Cameron Prize in Practical Therapeutics from the University of Edinburgh in 1966. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965.
Pincus died before the issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine congratulating him on his sixty-fifth birthday was published. Though sick for the last three years of his life, he had continued to work and travel. He died on August 22, 1967 in Boston of myeloid metaplasia, a bone-marrow disease which might have been caused by his work with organic solvents.