Exhibition

The pill

The early days of the pill

close up picture of a pile of half-used packs of contraceptive pills in different colours

In the 1870s the feminist movement began advocating for 'voluntary motherhood': the women’s right to enjoy sex independently from the decision on whether or not to have children. In the wake of their efforts, the term 'birth control' came into use from 1916. Again, pioneer Margaret Sanger played an important role in that process.

From the streets to the lab

title page of a book in a Yiddish translation called 'what every mother should know'  by Margaret Sanger

In the 1950s, Sanger managed to push forward research on the effects of progesterone with regards to preventing ovulation, by collaborating with innovative scientists such as Katharine Dexter McCormick. Yet the person often considered the inventor of the pill was Danish chemist Carl Djerassi - nicknamed ‘the father of the pill’.

Djerassi was a pivotal figure in the invention of norethisterone: a synthetic medication mimicking the effects produced by natural female hormones, that (unlike progesterone) was discovered to remain effective when orally consumed and turned out to be significantly stronger. His preparation was first administered as an oral contraceptive to animals by Gregory Pincus, Min Chueh Chang and administered to women by John Rock.

a yellow and chrome box stands on a white reflective countertop flanked by little transparent glass bottles. The bottles have yellow and green labels with the word 'progesterone' on them.

The trials of Enovid, the first hormonal birth control pill, began in April 1956. Four years later, it became the first birth control pill purchasable in the United States. Within a few years, millions of American women were 'on the pill' and a whole new market for pharmaceutical companies emerged.

a transparent glass pill bottle with a white plastic cap has a yellowed label that reads 'Enovid 5 mg'

The composition of the pill, however, was subsequently reviewed as the level of hormones caused side-effects. Belgian gynaecologist Ferdinand Peeters recalibrated the dose and issued a novel product, Anovlar, in 1961. "However, it was the brand Enovid that became the market by, among other things, implementing the Anovlar dosage". Since these early days, levels of hormones have continuously been adapted for optimisation. Today's pill contains five times less oestrogen and ten times less progesterone than the earliest examples.

Under wraps

As the contraceptive pill was one of the first prescriptions intended for healthy citizens, pharmaceutical companies soon started considering packaging designs that resembled an everyday object rather than a medicine. Engineer David Wagner came up with a pioneering dispenser shaped as a disc, with bright colours and graphics.

a plastic prototype with pen lettering showing a circular rotating system made to dispense pills one by one

Apart from serving as a 'memory aid' to assist women in tracking their pill regimen, it allowed the pill to be carried around in women’s bags in a discreet and stylish way. Wagner’s idea, intended to help his wife with her daily pill intake while avoiding 'irritation and a marital row or two' was soon after adopted by most American pharmaceutical companies selling birth control pills.

two hands hold two plastic circular discs that rotate to dispense pills one by one

In subsequent decades, many more - sometimes very creative - inventions would aim to support women in adopting the important daily habit of pill intake, resulting among others in the development of an alarm clock that dispenses a pill as soon as it’s turned off.

a blister pack in yellowish-green aluminum foil has symbols showing how to take every pill in succession. One pill is pushed out of the blister pack and sits on a white reflective surface.

As the century progressed, scientists continued to research and develop oral contraceptive methods, trying to lower health risks and optimising comfort of use for women.

A blister pack of pills lies on a black matte surface. The pills come in three colours, each occupying a row of the blister pack.

This led, for instance, to the introduction of triphasic contraceptive pills. These were meant to be taken in three phases during the menstrual cycle, and consisted of three types of pills with different levels of hormones. The high hormone levels of first generation contraceptives caused heart and circulatory problems, therefore lower amounts of hormones were a priority for the pharmaceutical industry to solve.