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Chemical Genesis Of The Pill

December 15, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 50

The book review of Jonathan Eig’s “The Birth of the Pill” by Audra Wolfe brought back memories of my employment at Searle during that time (C&EN, Sept. 22, page 32). Although I haven’t yet read the book (I have, however, ordered it), the book seems to identify “four crusaders” who were responsible for the Pill.

I was present at the research meetings when both Gregory Pincus and John Rock reported the progress of their clinical trials of the Pill in Puerto Rico. Although the work of these two scientists was very important, two other people not mentioned in the review were just as important. One was the late John G. Searle, the company’s president. The Catholic Church decided to oppose the Pill when it found out that it would be used as a contraceptive. Several Catholic employees refused to work on the Pill’s development because their priests told them that it was a sin to work on it.

There were also fears at the time that the Catholic Church would ask its members to boycott all Searle drugs. So John Searle’s decision to proceed with the Pill’s commercialization was a gutsy one. The other person not mentioned was the late Frank Colton, a brilliant steroidal organic chemist who envisioned and synthesized norethynodrel, the active ingredient in the Pill.

It is a shame that there have been many instances of reporting important discoveries where the chemist’s name is not mentioned. Without Colton’s contribution, we wouldn’t be talking about the Pill. I think C&EN, a publication of and for chemists, should take a stand on the important contributions of individual chemists by insisting on naming their names.

Peter K. Yonan
Morton Grove, Ill.

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