Tag Archives: John Rock

Margaret Sanger in Tucson: “Daring to Live”

“When the marvel of the spring came to the desert, you saw the cactus and the flowering, saw the brown floor change to delicate pale yellow, stood in awe of nature daring to live without water. You were reminded of the futility of wearing out your life merely providing food and raiment. Like the challenge of death, which so many of the people there were gallantly facing, the desert itself was a challenge.” – Margaret Sanger on Tucson, in her autobiography

Margaret Sanger in 1959, with friend Grace Sternberg, returning to the United States after a trip to New Delhi, Sanger's final overseas trip.

Margaret Sanger moved to Tucson in the 1930s and soon thereafter decided to live here full time, believing that the warm climate was conducive to good health. During Sanger’s years in Tucson, she latched onto any health fad or other technique she thought might improve her health. She exercised and experimented with various diets, including fasting on juice; eating a combination of yogurt, wheat germ, and honey; taking vitamin E supplements; and eating papayas (which she had shipped from Hawaii) for their alleged “restorative substances.”

In 1949, however, Sanger suffered a heart attack, and her son Stuart, a doctor, injected her with Demerol, a recently introduced painkiller not considered addictive at the time. The next year she had a second heart attack, resulting in another long convalescence at the hospital. Her addiction to Demerol intensified; she got Stuart to write prescriptions for her, and would sometimes falsely claim that bottles of the drug had fallen and shattered, which would require further prescriptions to be written. If a nurse refused her demand for Demerol, Sanger would inject it herself. Her son tried to wean her from the drug by collecting empty bottles and filling them with a diluted concentration of the drug, slowly increasing the proportion of water to Demerol until the solution was pure water. This was effective for a while, but eventually Sanger realized she had been duped and endeavored to get her hands back on the drug. She went through other doctors, firing them when they would decrease her dosage, and eventually took to self-administering injections of pure water every 30 minutes. Her addiction, it seemed, was both to the drug itself and the psychological comforts of the injection.  Continue reading

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Pro-Choice Book Club: Histories of Oral Contraceptives

Hormonal birth control has an incredible history that stretches back almost a century, when Margaret Sanger wrote of her dream of a “magic pill” in 1912. In the ensuing decades, scientists were busy piecing together the complex system of the body’s “chemical messengers,” hormones, and when they learned how to synthesize them in the ’40s, Sanger’s dream was but a few steps away from being fulfilled. Three engaging accounts of the Pill’s development – The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World by Bernard Asbell (1995), America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May (2010), and Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2009) – contain some overlap, while offering different perspectives.

Each author tells the inspiring story of Russell Marker, the chemist who first finagled progesterone from a wild-growing Mexican yam. Despite a near lack of support from pharmaceutical companies and the scientific community, he traveled to rural Mexico on a hunch – and ended up co-founding a laboratory that became the world’s top hormone supplier for the next few decades. Before Marker formulated a way to synthesize hormones in abundance, they were derived from slaughterhouse byproducts and were prohibitively expensive. Marker’s experiments enabled further medical research in hormones, and progesterone was soon used not only in oral contraceptives, but as a precursor for other medications such as cortisone.

While Carl Djerassi is often credited as the “father of the Pill,” both Asbell and May tip their hats to Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the Pill’s “mothers.” These two women also have fascinating biographies. As a nurse in the early twentieth century, Sanger was acquainted with the horrors that arose when women did not have control over their fertility. Many of her patients became infected or even died as the result of illegal or self-induced abortions, which motivated Sanger to become an activist for contraception’s legalization – an avocation that saw her illegally smuggling diaphragms into the country and serving time in jail after opening a family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Continue reading