Gregory Pincus is best known for his central role in developing "the pill"--the oral contraceptive or birth control pill. He also investigated the biochemistry of aging, arthritis, cancer, and the adrenal system's response to stress. Pincus was born in Woodbine, New Jersey. Both of his parents had interestsin agriculture and the arts, and his father taught at an agricultural school. In 1924, Pincus graduated from Cornell University where he not only studiedscience but founded a literary magazine. In 1927 he received master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and, following further study in Europe, joined Harvard's biology faculty. In 1938 he joined the faculty at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, as an experimental zoologist and, in 1944, co-founded the independent Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biologywhere he continued his earlier research on the way the reproductive system and female hormones functioned.
Since the discovery of the sex hormones, scientists had searched for a natural, safe, and foolproof method of using female hormones to treat infertility and prevent pregnancy. Several scientists beginning in the 1920s showed that progesterone inhibited ovulation. In the 1940s, British chemist Robert Robinson tried unsuccessfully to synthesize various female hormones. Pincus's work attracted the attention of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the United States' best-known advocate of birth control. Financed by Sanger's friend, philanthropist Katherine Dexter McCormick (1875-1967), Pincus led a group of scientists inthe early 1950s who began developing a hormone-based substance to make the body mimic pregnancy--the one time when a woman is almost certain not to become pregnant. The biologist Min-Chueh Chang carried out experiments on laboratory animals with various compounds of progestin, a synthetic progesterone developed in Mexico by the American chemist Carl Djerassi. Another collaborator,physician John Rock, had already been experimenting with progesterone to cureinfertility. Tests of the new substance on women took place in Massachusetts, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico, and California, supervised by Pincus, Rock, Celso-Ramon Garcia and Edris Rice-Wray. Because contraception was illegal in Massachusetts and due to objections from religious groups--principally the RomanCatholic Church--the initial tests were to treat infertility rather than prevent pregnancy. However, these tests showed that the compound prevented ovulation and in 1960, progesterone was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the first contraceptive pill.
Gregory Pincus continues to be hailed as the primary force behind the oral contraceptive. Among the many honors he received during his lifetime was membership in the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A.