Katharine Dexter McCormick (August 27, 1875 – December 28, 1967) was a U.S. suffragist, philanthropist and, after her husband’s death, heir to a substantial part of the McCormick family fortune. She funded most of the research necessary to develop the first birth control pill.
I love to read the stories of the lesser known heroines who have quietly, or not, changed the course of history and subsequently, the culture. The statement above is a very brief description of all she accomplished, both in mental health and women’s health.
In the 1950s, when the United States government, medical institutions and the pharmaceutical industry wanted nothing to do with contraceptive research, funding for the development of the Pill came from a very unlikely source — a single benefactor. Katharine McCormick provided almost every single dollar necessary to develop the oral contraceptive.
This was a bold move, because most US States banned contraceptives. McCormick wasn’t the typical society matron. She had been encouraged to pursue an education and earned a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in biology. However, not long after her marriage, her husband, heir to the International Harvester Company, developed schizophrenia and was soon lost to dementia. It was widely believed that schizophrenia was hereditary. McCormick, loath to pass on the terrible disease to her offspring, vowed never to have children.
Katharine turned her attention to philanthropy and activism. An early feminist, she was deeply committed to winning women the vote and was a prominent member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She firmly believed that a woman’s right to control her body was as important as her right to vote. It was during her suffragist days that she first crossed paths with legendary birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
It wasn’t until the death of her husband, when Margaret gained control of his full estate, that she began funding contraceptive research. Before then, she dedicated her philanthropy on family-approved areas such as schizophrenia research. In 1953, Sanger took McCormick to a small lab near Boston to meet Dr. Gregory Pincus, who was close to developing a once a day birth control pill. Katharine wrote out her first check, on the spot, to fund the project to the finish line.
Although the methods of research would never be considered today by legitimate researchers, in 1953 all research of birth control, up to then, had been done in secret. To fully test hormone results of the new pill, Pincus and Sanger saw Puerto Rico as the perfect place. At the time, it was in the midst of a population boom and poverty was rampant. It was also home to birth control clinics that had once been funded by the U.S. government under New Deal programs. Digging further into this story was eye-opening and shows how “subjects” were exploited “for the greater good.” After successes and fails, a formula was developed and readied for the public use. Getting it to market would prove challenging as well, at first.
The nearly six-foot-tall McCormick was described by Dr. Pincus’ wife as a warrior:“she carried herself like a ramrod. Little old woman she was not. She was a grenadier.” When the pill came out in 1960, all the scientists and doctors were thrust into the national spotlight. No mention of McCormick’s remarkable contribution was mentioned. Her death on December 28, 1967, at the age of 92, did not even merit an obituary in any of the major papers. Although few recalled Katharine McCormick’s role in the development of the Pill at the time, in recent years, historians have recognized her contribution.
My mission is to keep these women warriors’ stories of hope alive. Our history is wrapped up in their accomplishments and our future is in their legacies.