Gregory Goodwin Pincus's (1903-1967) research in endocrinology resulted in pathbreaking work on hormones and animal physiology. However, he is best known for developing the oral contraceptive pill.
As his friend and colleague Hudson Hoagland remarked in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine: "[Pincus'] highly important development of a pill. … to control human fertility in a world rushing on to pathological overpopulation is an example of practical humanism at its very best." In addition, Gregory Goodwin Pincus also participated in the founding of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology and the annual Laurentian Hormone Conference.
Pincus was born in Woodbine, New Jersey, on April 9, 1903, the eldest son of Joseph and Elizabeth Lipman Pincus. His father, a graduate of Storrs Agricultural College in Connecticut, was a teacher and the editor of a farm journal. His mother's family came from Latvia and settled in New Jersey. Pincus' uncle on his mother's side, Jacob Goodale Lipman, was dean of the New Jersey State College of Agriculture at Rutgers University, director of the New Jersey State Agricultural Experiment Station, and the founding editor of Soil Science magazine.
After attending a public grade school in New York City, Pincus became an honor student at Morris High School where he was president of the debating and literary societies. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, he founded and edited the Cornell Literary Review. After receiving his B.S. degree in 1924, he was accepted into graduate school at Harvard. He concentrated on genetics under W. E. Castle but also did work on physiology with animal physiologist W. J. Crozier. Pincus credited the two scientists with influencing him to eventually study reproductive physiology. He received both his Master of Science and Doctor of Science degrees in 1927 at the age of twenty-four. Pincus married Elizabeth Notkin on December 2, 1924, the same year he completed his undergraduate degree. They had three children—Alexis, John, and Laura Jane.
In 1927 Pincus won a three-year fellowship from the National Research Council. During this time, he travelled to Cambridge University in England where he worked with F.H.A. Marshall and John Hammond, who were pioneers in reproductive biology. He also studied at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute with the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt. He returned to Harvard in 1930, first as an instructor in biology and then as assistant professor.
Much of the research Pincus did during the early part of his career concentrated on the inheritance of physiological traits. Later research focused on reproductive physiology, particularly sex hormones and gonadotrophic hormones (those which stimulate the reproductive glands). Other research interests included geotropism, the inheritance of diabetes, relationships between hormones and stress, and endocrine function in patients with mental disorders. He also contributed to the development of the first successful extensive partial pancreatectomy in rats.
The development of the oral contraceptive pill began in the early 1930s with Pincus' work on ovarian hormones. He published many studies of living ova (eggs) and their fertilization. While still at Harvard he perfected some of the earliest methods of transplanting animal eggs from one female to another who would carry them to term. He also developed techniques to produce multiple ovulation in laboratory animals. As a consequence of this work, he learned that some phases of development of an animal's ovum were regulated by particular ovarian hormones. Next, he analyzed the effects of ovarian hormones on the function of the uterus, the travel of the egg, and the maintenance of the blastocyst (the first embryonic stage) and later the embryo itself. By 1939 he had published the results of his research on breeding rabbits without males by artificially activating the eggs in the females. This manipulation was called "Pincogenesis, " and it was widely reported in the press, but it was not able to be widely replicated by other researchers.
After returning from a year at Cambridge University in 1938, Pincus became a visiting professor of experimental zoology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he stayed until 1945. It was at Clark that Pincus began to work with Hoagland, though they had known each other as graduate students. Together they began to research the relationship between stress and hormones for the United States Navy and Air Force. Specifically, they examined the relationship between steroid excretion, adrenal cortex function, and the stress of flying. While at Clark University, Pincus was named a Guggenheim fellow and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In the spring of 1943, the first conference on hormones sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science was held near Baltimore. Since the conference was held at a private club, African American scientist Percy Julian was excluded. Pincus protested to the management, and Julian was eventually allowed to join the conference. Although not an organizer the first year, Pincus was involved in reshaping the conference the following year, along with biochemist Samuel Gurin and physiological chemist Robert W. Bates. They held the conference in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, Canada, and from then on the conference was known as the Laurentian Conference, and Pincus was its permanent chairperson. In addition to his administrative duties, he edited the twenty-three volumes of Recent Progress in Hormone Research, a compendium of papers presented at the annual conferences.
With Hoagland, Pincus also co-founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology (WFEB) in 1944. Hoagland served as executive director of the WFEB; Pincus served as director of laboratories for twelve years and then as research director. The WFEB served as a research center on steroid hormones and provided training for young biochemists in the methods of steroid biochemistry. From 1946 to 1950 Pincus was on the faculty of Tufts Medical School in Medford, Massachusetts, and then from 1950 until his death he was research professor in biology at Boston University Graduate School. Many of his doctoral students at these universities completed research at the WFEB.
Pincus had been conducting research on sterility and hormones since the 1930s, but it was not until the 1950s that he applied his theoretical knowledge to the idea of creating a solution to the problem of overpopulation. In 1951 he was exposed to the work of Margaret Sanger, who had described the inadequacy of existing birth control methods and the looming problem of overpopulation, particularly in underdeveloped areas. By 1953, Pincus was working with Min-Chueh Chang at the WFEB, studying the effects of steroids on the fertility of laboratory animals.
Science had made it possible to produce steroid hormones in bulk, and Chang discovered a group of compounds called progestins which worked as ovulation inhibitors. Pincus took these findings to the G. D. Searle Company, where he had been a consultant, and shifted his emphasis to human beings instead of laboratory animals. Pincus also brought human reproduction specialists John Rock and Celso Garcia into the project. They conducted clinical tests of the contraceptive pill in Brookline, Massachusetts, to confirm the laboratory data. Pincus then travelled to Haiti and Puerto Rico, where he oversaw large-scale clinical field trials.
Oscar Hechter, who met Pincus in 1944 while at the WFEB, wrote in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine that "Gregory Pincus belongs to history because he was a man of action who showed the world that the population crisis is not an 'impossible' problem. He and his associates demonstrated that there is a way to control birth rates on a large scale, suitable alike for developed and underdeveloped societies. The antifertility steroids which came to be known as the 'Pill' were shown to be effective, simple, contraceptive agents, relatively safe, and eminently practical to employ on a large scale." Pincus spent much of the last fifteen years of his life travelling to explain the results of research. This is reflected in his membership in biological and endocrinological societies in Portugal, France, Great Britain, Chile, Haiti, and Mexico. His work on oral contraceptives was also recognized by awards such as the Albert D. Lasker Award in Planned Parenthood in 1960 and the Cameron Prize in Practical Therapeutics from the University of Edinburgh in 1966. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965.
Pincus died before the issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine commemorating his sixty-fifth birthday was published. Although ill for the last three years of his life, he had continued to work and travel. He died in Boston on August 22, 1967, of myeloid metaplasia, a bone-marrow disease which some speculate was caused by his work with organic solvents.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 10, Scribner, 1970, pp. 610-611.
Ingle, Dwight J., "Gregory Goodwin Pincus, " in Biographical Memoirs, Volume 42, Columbia University Press, 1971, pp. 228-270.
Hechter, Oscar, "Homage to Gregory Pincus, " in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, spring, 1968, pp. 358-370.
Hoagland, Hudson, "Creativity—Genetic and Psychosocial, " in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, spring, 1968, pp. 339-349.