The McCormick Family and the Pill

The Pill turns 55 this year and it has changed the lives of women across the globe.  The story of the creation of the pill is an interesting one that involves eugenics, a devout Catholic who was trying to use science to help women who couldn’t conceive, and one very rich and forward-thinking woman.  This woman inherited most of her fortune from Stanley McCormick – the brother of Mary, after whom our little park and community centre are named.


stanleymccormickStanley McCormick
 was the youngest of 7 children, the “sensitive” child of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper.  Stanley graduated with honours from Princeton University and belonged to the Varsity tennis team. He was attracted to the arts and hoped to become an artist but in the end, being good with numbers, Stanley eventually entered the family business.  Throughout his life, he suffered from indecision, stress, and what we now know as obsessive compulsive disorder. Stanley kept 6-8 different weights of underwear and every morning he had a hard time deciding which type to wear.  In 1903 in Boston, he met up with his childhood friend Katherine Dexter.

katherinemccormickKatherine Dexter, like Stanley, came from a wealthy family.  Her father was a prominent lawyer in Michigan and died in 1890.  After his death, Katherine and her mother Josephine moved to Boston.  Katherine attended MIT and was the second woman to graduate there, although it took her 8 years to accomplish this because of the hurdles she faced from being a woman.   Katherine was in her senior year in 1903 when she met up with Stanley, who became very attached to her.  He was into socialism at that time and wanted to discuss politics with the left-leaning Katherine. She appreciated his intelligence and his interest in the arts but Stanley proved to be too much for her.  He admitted to being addicted to masturbation and had a leather harness made to restrain him against pleasuring himself at night.

After graduation Katherine escaped to her family’s chateau in Switzerland but on the way Stanley accosted her on the wharf in New York.  He followed her to Switzerland and through his persistence and deep love for her, finally convinced her to marry him.  They honeymooned in Europe for 9 months, but apparently the marriage was never consummated — both mothers disapproved of their union and visited them throughout their trip. Stanley would never come to bed, spending his nights writing letters.  When they did try, Stanley couldn’t make it happen, blaming it on his masterbation habit and on a sexual encounter with a Parisian prostitute he admitted to having had years earlier.

After their honeymoon, Stanley and Katherine lived apart – Stanley in Chicago working at the family reaper business and Katherine in Boston.  In 1906, Stanley had to resign because of his mental illness and he moved in with Katherine.  As his mental state improved Katherine encouraged him to produce an heir.  Stanley turned violent, attacking a dentist, an elevator operator then eventually a German tutor.  Katherine checked Stanley into the McLean Institute in Boston, one of the most famous mental institutions in the United States.  On the admission form under “heredity”, doctors noted “family of nervous temperament, mother eccentric, sister insane”.

It’s at this point that Katherine and the McCormick family began to clash and would continue to disagree for the next 40 years.  Nettie, Stanley’s mother and Anita, his sister believed that it was Katherine who caused Stanley’s insanity and they fought against the treatment Stanley was receiving.  Katherine was devoted, visiting often and writing letters to Stanley.  Adolf Meyer, one of the United States’ top psychiatrists at the time, was brought in to diagnose Stanley. Being hired by the McCormicks, Meyer suggested to Katherine that she should divorce Stanley.  Katherine wouldn’t have any of it, and managed to persuade Anita to move Stanley to the estate Riven Rock, in Montecito, California, the house Stanley originally supervised to be built for his sister Mary.  Stanley lived the rest of his days there, with hired staff and in-house physicians.

Once Stanley was situated in California, Katherine turned to other interests.  In 1909, she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, soon becoming the vice-president and treasurer.  Eventually she would help organize, alongside Carrie Chapman Catt, the women’s right to vote in the United States in 1920.  Finally, she became Vice-President of the League of Women Voters.  During this time she met Margaret Sanger – the founder of the modern birth control movement.  Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 and the first one staffed by females in New York in 1921.

margaretsangerMargaret Sanger was an influential early feminist who used her writing in support of the new cause for birth control for women.  In 1914 after publishing her newsletter The Woman Rebel, she faced going to jail, so she fled New York to England by the way of Montreal.  Sanger is still a contentious figure today.  While she is held in high regard as a feminist, having saved countless women from performing abortions on themselves, her birth control ideas went hand in hand with the idea of eugenics – selective breeding to improve the human race.  The placement of her clinics in the poorest immigrant and black neighbourhoods has been perceived as a way to control the population of these people.

Almost thirty years after meeting Sanger, Stanley passed away and Katherine gained full control of her inheritance ($10 million from her mother and $35 million from Stanley, 85% of which was taken by inheritance tax). Katherine was able to get in touch with Margaret Sanger again and help to fund birth control.   Sanger put Katherine in touch with Gregory Pincus, a biologist studying infertility.

gregorypincusGregory Pincus was a jewish biologist from New Jersey.  He attended Cornell University and then Harvard. Eventually he became an assistant Professor at Harvard in 1931.  His first breakthrough came in 1934 when he was able to create in-vitro fertilization in rabbits. In 1944 he co-founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology to research the relationship between hormones, heart disease, cancer and schizophrenia.  In 1951, Margaret Sanger’s  Planned Parenthood Federation of America had given the the Pincus’ foundation a small grant to conduct hormonal contraceptive research and Pincus and his partner Min Chueh Chang, were thus able to confirm that progesterone could act as an inhibitor to ovulation.  (It was in 1938 that Russell Marker first synthesized progesterone from a Mexican yam, making it much less costly than pulling the hormone from animals).   In 1952 Katherine McCormick met Pincus and increased funding for this research (by 50 times); one year later Pincus and Dr. John Rock began trials of progesterone on humans.

johnrockJohn Rock was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard medical school in 1918.  He  was a Catholic, married with 5 children.  Like Pincus, Rock was a pioneer in in-vitro fertilization as well as sperm freezing, allowing many of his patients the ability to conceive.

The rhythm method was (and still is) regarded by the Catholic Church the only moral from of birth control. In the 1930s Rock founded a clinic to teach this method to clients and he was the only Catholic physician to sign a petition to legalize birth control at this time.  In the 1940s, he taught a curriculum at Harvard which included birth control and also co-wrote a birth control guide in 1949 entitled “Voluntary Parenthood”.

Rock and Pincus began human trials in Puerto Rico in 1954.  Rock was using birth control in an  attempt to make women more fertile.  They would take progesterone and then stop and try to conceive.  The women in the trials had an encouraging 15% fertility rate using this method.  By 1955, Enovid, the first brand name birth control pill was approved by the USFDA as a menstrual regulator and by 1960 it was approved for contraceptive use.  Enovid was the first pill humans took that was not a treatment for illness.  The pill was not available to women in all of the United States until contraception became legal in 1965 and then legal for unmarried women in 1972.  Contraception became legal in Canada in 1971.

Katherine McCormick continued to fund birth control biology throughout the 1960s and donated almost the entire $2 million ($27 million today) it took for research and development.  She funded a residence for 200 women at MIT, and when she died in 1967, she donated $5 million to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, $5 million to the Stanford University School of Medicine for women doctors, and $1 million to Gregory Pincus’ Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.  Many of the priceless paintings she had bought with Stanley on their honeymoon were donated to the Chicago Institute of Art.

Historically, birth control has been a contentious issue and we don’t know if that will ever change. One fact that everyone can agree upon is that the pill has had a great impact on our society.  The invention of the pill allowed many women to be in sexual relationships without the worry of unwanted pregnancy. The autonomy afforded by the pill contributed to opportunities for women to take on more varied roles than wife and mother.  It’s hard to know how closely tied the sexual revolution of 60s was to the invention of this little pill, created by the many personalities all connected in some way to the McCormick family.

I believe that Katherine’s difficult and strange married life allowed her to devote time and effort to the suffrage movement and birth control.   Could this have happened if she had gotten pregnant with Stanley McCormick’s child?  If Stanley hadn’t suffered such mental illness would he have supported Katherine in her efforts?  While no doubt Gregory and John Rock were well on their way towards the science of the pill, how long would it have taken for the pill to become available for general use without the McCormick fortune?  Looking back on history it’s interesting to think about these questions and to think about how we are connected to each other.  In our community, we use the McCormick name on a daily basis on our way to the park but that name really goes deeper than we think…  Anyone who’s taken the pill or been with someone who took the pill is related in some small way to the actions of Katherine Dexter McCormick.  It makes me wonder about the choices we make in our own lives as well as the chance events and encounters we have.  How might they affect society, and the future?

Further Reading

The Pill at 50: Sex, Freedom and Paradox
This hour has 7 days interview with John Rock
Letters between Katherine McCormick and Margaret Sanger

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