Bitter Pill


Back in 1970, when anti-technology hype was at its height, Sen. Gaylord Nelson–most famous as the father of Earth Day–held widely publicized hearings on the evils of the birth control pill. They scared the bejesus out of millions of American women and helped cripple contraceptive research right up to the present. The lead witness was Hugh J. Davis, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins.

"It is medically unsound to administer such powerful synthetic hormones in order to achieve birth control objectives which can be reached by simple means of greater safety," he told the committee. "The synthetic chemicals in the pills are quite unnatural with respect to their manufacture and with respect to their behavior once they are introduced into the human body….It seems to me extremely unwise to officially license, sponsor, or encourage a long-range experiment such as we now have in progress on the effects of chronic ingestion of synthetic hormones by millions of women."

Davis died in late October. The headline over his New York Times obituary identified him as the "gynecologist who invented the Dalkon Shield." That device not only contributed to deaths, miscarriages, and infections but led to the bankruptcy of a major corporation and the creation of a law requiring FDA approval of all new medical devices.

Hugh J. Davis deserves to be remembered: Few, if any, individuals have done as much damage to the twin causes of medical innovation and reproductive freedom.