Pill Polemics: Carl Djerassi, Barbara Seaman, and (Mis)Information about the Side Effects of Oral Contraceptives

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 4:10 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Kate Grauvogel, Indiana University and Science History Institute
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved oral contraceptives in 1960. In 1961 The New York Times reported cases of pill users developing fatal blood clots. Feminist health activist and journalist Barbara Seaman (1935-2008) presented the dangers of oral contraceptives in her 1969 book, The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill. Seaman alleged that pill developers knew that synthetic hormones used in hormone replacement therapy and oral contraceptives could cause cancer, stroke, and blood clots in women. According to Seaman the developers of the pill and the pharmaceutical companies hid their knowledge of these possible side-effects and used women as guinea pigs. Her account fails to distinguish between what side effects were known or suspected during the developmental phase of the pill in the 1950s and what became known or suspected after it was approved by the FDA. Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was a chemist who vehemently defended the pill’s safety. While employed at Syntex Djerassi extracted a steroid (diosgenin) from wild yams that was later used in the process of making oral contraceptives. Djerassi then proclaimed himself: “father” of the birth control pill, a staunch supporter of oral contraceptives for women, and a supporter of women’s rights. However, Djerassi’s dogged defense of the pill despite the mounting evidence of its serious side effects is at odds with his purported espousal of women’s rights. These inconsistencies are revealed through his dismissal of the contributions of the women scientists and activists behind the pill as well as his disregard for the safety of women taking it. I revise the Djerassi and Seaman accounts of the pill story, arguing that Djerassi overstated his contribution and minimized the contributions of women while Seaman placed undue blame on the developers of the pill.