Frank Colton was born in Poland in 1923 to Jewish parents. Antisemitic riots and hundreds of violent hate crimes gave the family motivation to move to the United States in 1934. He studied at Northwestern and University of Chicago, receiving his PhD in 1950. By 1951 Colton was working as a research chemist for pharmaceutical giant G.D. Searle & Company, which is now owned by Pfizer. There he synthesized norethynodrel, a progestin.
The earliest form of the Pill used in human trials consisted of high doses of synthetic estrogen combined with steroids. The version first FDA approved and sold in the US was more effective by reducing estrogen levels and adding in Colton’s progesterone. Colton would also cocreate the second FDA approved birth control pill, as well as the first oral antibiotic. If you’re needlephobic, he’s your hero.
In the early 1950s Gregory Pincus (biologist tasked by Margaret Sangerand funded by Katharine McCormick with developing an oral contraceptive pill) was in a bit of a bind. His team had expanded on the work of others to create a high dose pill of synthetic hormones, but they couldn’t legally conduct clinical trials as they were scientists, not doctors. Heavily Catholic Massachusetts had strict Comstock era laws on the books that made testing illegal even with a doctor.
Fortunately for Pincus he ran into an old friend, Dr. John Rock, at a medical conference. They swapped stories and discovered they were each already testing the potential of progesterone: Pincus on rabbits and Rock on infertility patients. Rock theorized a period of no ovulation might allow the reproductive organs to “rest”. 18 of 80 patients were pregnant within four months of ceasing progesterone.
Now they wanted to test the contraception human women. In 1953 Rock began administering the Pill to women at his clinic, under the guise of fertility research. Only some of them gave informed consent. He also started trials on men and women asylum patients, to test long term effects on reproductive organs. They did not consent, but their familial legal guardians did. Results on both projects were promising.