Meet the Smuggler Who Brought Birth Control to the US


Via the Nineteen Twenties, Katharine Dexter McCormick periodically sailed from Europe to New York with garment-stuffed trunks. Had U.S. Customs Service inspectors checked—they didn’t—they may have thought McCormick a clotheshorse. What McCormick was was a smuggler—of contraception units. Sewn into her wardrobe have been diaphragms, lengthy out there in Europe however since 1873 banned in the US.

Posing as a scientist, McCormick met with diaphragm makers, purchased merchandise, and sneaked them to Brooklyn household planning advocate Margaret Sanger. McCormick’s dedication to girls’s well-being led to one of many twentieth century’s most consequential innovations: the contraception tablet.

McCormick grew up with activism. Her grandfather, Samuel Dexter, who made his cash in land hypothesis, based Dexter, a city in southeast Michigan, and maintained an Underground Railroad cease in his grand residence. Father Wirt Dexter, a rich Chicago lawyer, led that metropolis’s Reduction and Help Society, and mom Josephine fought for feminine suffrage. Their second baby, Katharine, born in 1875, would embrace causes of her personal. And he or she would make use of science to make the case for these causes.

McCormick, left, killed an MIT rule requiring feminine college students to put on hats in lab by noting that feathers are flammable. (MIT Museum)

Katharine was 14 when Wirt Dexter died of a stroke and 18 when meningitis claimed her brother, Samuel. These untimely deaths possible piqued her curiosity in drugs. 

Josephine and Katharine relocated to Boston, the place Katharine turned the second lady to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Know-how and the primary to earn a level in biology there. As an undergraduate, she fought a rule requiring feminine college students to put on hats within the laboratory. Arguing that the plumes then trendy have been flammable, McCormick received. 

Graduating in 1904, she wed Stanley McCormick, an inheritor to the Worldwide Harvester farm equipment empire based by his father, Cyrus. Stanley and Katharine would stay wed for 40 years, however by 1906 medical doctors have been hospitalizing him for dementia praecox, as schizophrenia was then recognized. Katharine turned Stanley’s medical advocate, battling his siblings and his medical doctors to acknowledge the biology that underlay her husband’s psychological signs—a struggle that novelist T. Coraghessan Boyle rendered fictionally in his 1998 novel Riven Rock.

Apart from McCormick assets, Katharine had her personal cash. Upon her mom’s loss of life in 1937, she inherited $10 million.

Stanley by no means recovered. Together with representing her husband’s pursuits, his spouse took up the intertwined points of girls’s suffrage and reproductive rights.

McCormick dedicates an MIT dorm named for her partner. (MIT Museum)

 In 1909, Katharine spoke at a suffrage demonstration in Massachusetts. Later she served as lieutenant, treasurer, and vp of the Nationwide American Lady Suffrage Affiliation, the group pushing for a constitutional modification giving American girls the vote. 

Brooklyn-based activist Margaret Sanger was jailed in 1917 for working a household planning clinic. McCormick joined the Committee of 100—a gaggle of rich benefactors dedicated to Sanger’s trigger. 

“The clarion bell of her imprisonment awoke me, because it did others, into the particular realization of what have to be carried out,” McCormick wrote later. “And with this realization got here the notice {that a} battle lay forward.” 

McCormick and Sanger turned lifelong associates.

The nineteenth Modification giving girls the vote was ratified in 1920, however contraception remained outlawed—therefore McCormick’s decade of diaphragm smuggling.

A 1960 package deal of contraception capsules. (Photograph by SSPL/Getty Photographs)

Throughout that interval, McCormick additionally endowed the Neuroendocrine Analysis Basis at Harvard Medical Faculty, the primary facility to discover the position performed by hormones in psychological sickness. McCormick additionally believed that additional analysis was wanted to assist girls management the timing and frequency of pregnancies.

When Stanley McCormick died in 1947, McCormick, 72, inherited greater than $35 million. Taxes took a lot of that, however she nonetheless may afford to fund the marketing campaign of her goals. Sanger’s household planning basis was underwriting a small mission utilizing the expensive hormone progesterone to halt ovulation in rabbits on the Worcester Basis for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Reproductive biologist and in vitro fertilization pioneer Gregory Pincus was overseeing the rabbit research. McCormick, who was supporting schizophrenia analysis at that facility, recommended that she and Sanger meet with Pincus. 

The day the three met in 1953, McCormick wrote a $20,000 test to launch a contraception tablet mission. In time, her help totaled $2 million. Because of her generosity and to breakthroughs in substitutes for pure progesterone, the mission quickly was delivering promising outcomes. Medical trials that started in 1956 led to U.S. Meals and Drug Administration approval in 1960 of a prescription contraception tablet. 

One in every of McCormick’s final gestures got here in 1959. MIT was resisting admitting extra girls, pleading lack of housing. With a pen and a checkbook, McCormick scratched out her alma mater’s excuse. Development of Stanley A. McCormick Corridor ushered in “an period by which the variety of lady college students steadily grew,” in accordance with MIT.

Late in life, as a symbolic celebration, Katharine Dexter McCormick acquired a prescription for contraception capsules and had it crammed at a drug retailer. “She carried herself like a ramrod,” stated Elizabeth Notkin, Gregory Pincus’s spouse. “Little previous lady she was not. She was a grenadier.” McCormick was 92 when she died in Boston in 1967.

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