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Anniversary highlights birthplace of ‘the pill’

Archival photos show the Shrewsbury lab (top) where Gregory Pincus, seen with a lab assistant, helped develop the first oral contraceptive. Archival photos show the Shrewsbury lab (top) where Gregory Pincus, seen with a lab assistant, helped develop the first oral contraceptive. (University of Massachusetts Medical School)
By James O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2010

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As the world turns its eyes to “the pill,’’ marking the 50th anniversary of the first oral contraceptive drug approved in the United States, a former president of the Shrewsbury laboratory where it was developed says it might be time to also give a nod to the birthplace of modern birth control.

Key research that led to the birth-control pill’s creation took place at what is now the Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research, a nonprofit institute in Shrewsbury, according to Thoru Pederson. The foundation’s president and scientific director from 1985 to 1997, Pederson now serves as a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which acquired the institute in his final year as its head.

“One of the most transformative discoveries in modern medical history,’’ Pederson said of the pill’s development. “It’s a Shrewsbury story. It’s a Boston story. It’s very much a Massachusetts story.’’

Three years after winning approval for use in the treatment of menstrual disorders, the pill was provisionally cleared by the federal Food and Drug Administration as a contraceptive on May 11, 1960, and the FDA’s final OK was handed down six weeks later, on June 23. It would take years after that, however, for both married and unmarried women to win access to the contraceptive in every state.

Often overlooked within that overarching history, Pederson said, are the local people and places playing key roles in the drug’s development.

“We scientists like to brag to peers,’’ he said, “but as soon as it’s the public we tend to fall back on a habit of truth and an almost Draconian humility.’’

Elaine Tyler May, a University of Minnesota history professor whose book “America and the Pill’’ was recently published, described the Shrewsbury lab as “very important’’ to the whole story.

May said that because legal restrictions blocked serious trials of birth-control drugs in Massachusetts at the time, the Shrewsbury site was little known outside research circles and “there is no one place that’s seen as the birthplace of the pill.’’

“Although,’’ she added, “that lab was, in many ways.’’

The Shrewsbury story starts with biologist Gregory Pincus and scientist Hudson Hoagland, who met in Worcester after Pincus was not renewed as a junior faculty member at Harvard University in 1937.

In 1943, Pincus and Hoagland cofounded what was then called the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology (it was amended to “Biomedical Research’’ in 1995). It moved from Worcester to Shrewsbury in 1947.

It was in 1953 that Margaret Sanger, a New York-based women’s rights activist, brought her associate Katharine McCormick, an activist and biologist then about 78 years old, to Shrewsbury to meet Pincus and his colleagues.

The idea, according to May, was to fund research into a contraceptive for women.

McCormick had been the second woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1904. She had married into a wealthy family, and she had money to invest in research.

“She was hands-on, inspecting the lab,’’ said May. “She liked what she saw and offered to help Pincus.’’

Her first gift was for $40,000, “a lot of money’’ at the time, said Shrewsbury resident John McCracken, hired by Pincus as a staff scientist. From there the institute attracted the support of G.D. Searle & Co., an Illinois-based pharmaceutical maker for whom Pincus was already a consultant.

By 1957, Pincus, Hoagland, and biologist Min-Chueh Chang were coordinating their research into the contraceptive drug — in secret, according to Pederson and May — with Dr. John Rock, director of the Reproductive Study Center in Brookline.

Word of the drug’s success began to spread. The institute presented its findings on the pill’s ability to safely prevent pregnancies to the FDA in 1960.

Even after the pill’s final approval, Pederson said, “there was no focal attention on the Worcester Foundation. People didn’t make the connection as to where the research was done.’’

The research institute had given its patent to Searle — not uncommon in that era, according to Pederson. The team at the Shrewsbury lab drank some champagne, and then went back to work.

Pederson said another factor in the institute’s relative anonymity was Pincus falling victim to a rare blood disease; he died at age 63, in 1967.

“There is no question he would have been given the Nobel Prize,’’ Pederson said, had Pincus lived longer. “That would have changed the world’s perception of the Shrewsbury lab. It would have put the spotlight on the Worcester Foundation; but it just wasn’t meant to be.’’

“It was so epoch making,’’ said McCracken, agreeing that the Nobel might well have gone to Pincus, as well as Sanger and McCormick. “That would certainly have been a feather in the cap of the Worcester Foundation, for sure.’’

Today the Shrewsbury institute honors its founders with a building that bears their names, the Hoagland-Pincus Conference Center. There is no plaque, however, no commemorative marker.

As for the institute’s role in developing the pill, Pederson said, he is not trying to tell the world, “Guess what, everything happened in Shrewsbury, Mass.’’

Rather, he said: “I’m just looking for a strict recitation of the accurate location.’’

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