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By Stewart Emmens on

'The Pill' – Many Happy Returns

Pill paperweight
Paperweight in the form of 'the pill', c1970 (Science Museum)

The oral contraceptive – better known simply as ‘the pill’ – is a part of everyday life. And while its very existence still attracts strong and conflicting opinions, it has revolutionised the lives of countless women in the last 50 years. Because it was on May 9, 1960, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conditionally approved the drug Enovid 10mg – the world’s first birth control pill.

Bottle of Enovid 10mg
Bottle of Enovid 10mg pills (Science Museum)

Surprisingly, Enovid had already been available for several years. Used by tens of thousands of women for infertility and menstrual problems. But its contraceptive properties were confirmed by a number of researchers – notably John Rock and Gregory Pincus.

Given the social changes ‘the pill’ would facilitate, the 9 May announcement was something of a ‘slow burner’. Margaret Sanger, America’s leading birth control campaigner, who raised much of the research funding, only learned of it after her son read a press story. While Searle, the makers of Enovid, chose not to re-market it as a contraceptive for several months. But, the door had been opened. By 1965, over 5 million American women were on ‘the pill’ and its use was spreading across the world.

Packing pills
Packing contraceptive pills in a UK factory, 1965 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As for Enovid, it’s solitary reign was short-lived as other branded products appeared. And like other early pills, it eventually became linked to thrombosis and other health problems. Later prescribed in lower doses, production of the drug was discontinued in 1988.

Fifty years of experience have helped improve safety and oral contraceptives are amongst the most prescribed drugs worldwide – a situation unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. And while long consigned to the pharmacological scrapheap, one iconic drug’s place in this ongoing story is assured.  Happy Birthday Enovid!

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