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The pill: what every gringo should know

10 May 2010

New York Times writer Gail Collins celebrates both Mothers’ Day and the fiftieth anniversary of  of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s announcement of its “intention to approve the pill” for distribution by G.D. Searle and Company.

Like a great many of our anniversaries, this one is a movable feast. The Food and Drug Administration actually gave G.D. Searle the go-ahead to market the first oral contraceptive (not counting bees) on June 23, 1960. But the F.D.A. announced its intention to approve the pill on May 9, which also happens to be Mother’s Day this year and, therefore, too good to resist.

This is a story about science, and obviously sex. But it’s also a saga about getting information.

Yes, indeed it is. But Ms. Collins leaves out some information.

For centuries the Huasteca had lived in harmony with their environment — having only the number of children that there were able to adequately care for. Unlike other indigenous societies that limit their numbers, the Huasteca did not resort to infanticide,abortion or sexual abstinence.  Fascinated scientists wanted to know the secret, which the Huasteca women were quite happy to share — wild yams.  Diascorea villosa, which grows throughout eastern North America, is a source of disosgenin, a chemical which causes the body to produce progesterone, a female hormone that inhibits fertility.

Unable to interest pharmaceutical companies in the United State sin pursuing the research, Dr. Russer Marker moved to Mexico City and began producing diogenin .  Once the chemical composition was known, and with additional research by a Roman Catholic doctor, John Rock, who was searching for a way to prevent pregnancies among his mostly lower-middle-class patients in Boston while satisfying religious objects to artificial birth control, oral contraceptives first became available in the late 1950s.

(You know where)

True enough, the FDA made them available to women in the United States through one major drug company in 1960, shouldn’t we also have celebrated 1958 when — based on the Mexican experience with oral contraceptives, Pius XII gave approval of the pill for use by married  Catholic women (later rescinded by Paul VI in 1968), or 1951, when the Mexican firm Sintex first began producing oral contraceptives, or perhaps 1950, when Luis Miramontes first synthized artificial progestrone,  or  perhaps 1939 when Russell Marker first learned about Diasocorea villosa. Who did more for women’s health and equality in the last century… Russell Marker?  Luis Miramontes?  The Mexico City prostitutes who tested oral contraceptives long before the better know U.S.F.D.A. tests in Puerto Rico?  And how should the Huastaca women — whose herbal formulas created the modern feminist movement be given their rightful credit and thanks?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 May 2010 8:40 am

    Gabriela Soto Laveaga has a new book out on the creation of the pill and Mexico’s role. Jungle Laboratories.

  2. 10 May 2010 12:38 pm

    Aside from the historical significance and the fact that once again people in the US demonstrate their absolute ignorance of Mexico, this post blew me away for rather odd personal reasons.

    I was, for many years, a psychiatric social worker. For the most part I worked with people who had serious mental illnesses both in a state hospital and in a community clinic. One of the women patients who had paranoid delusions improved markedly, to the point that she was not only discharged but came to work as a teacher’s aid in a preschool. She was a delightful woman whose one remaining delusion was that she was secretly married to Fidel Castro whom she insisted had invented birth control pills with sweet potatoes.

  3. 10 May 2010 12:43 pm

    PS Needless to say, I hadn’t heard of the Huasteca-yam birth control connection before this post.

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