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Searle, John Gideon ("Jack")

SEARLE, John Gideon ("Jack")

(b. 18 March 1901 in Sabula, Iowa; d. 21 March 1978 in Hobe Sound, Florida), pharmaceutical manufacturer with G. D. Searle, Inc., the company that developed the first effective and inexpensive oral contraceptive ("the Pill") for women in 1957, which was integral to the 1960s sexual revolution.

The second of two sons of Claude Searle, a physician and pharmaceutical manufacturer, and Marion Titus Searle, a housewife, Searle represented the third of what is now four generations of drug manufacturers. His grandfather, Gideon Daniel, founded G. D. Searle, Inc., in 1888. (It merged with Monsanto Company in 1985.) Searle worked for the family business during summer breaks from Howe (Indiana) Academy and New Trier Township (Illinois) High School. A champion swimmer, he enlisted (though he was underage) in the U.S. Naval Reserve forces during World War I and taught swimming; he graduated from high school in 1918, while he was serving in the reserves (1918–1919). After the war Searle attended the University of Michigan from 1920 to 1923, where he played quarterback for the football team. After graduating in 1923 with a B.S. in pharmacy, Searle worked as a buyer and later as an office manager for the family's firm. He married Frances Crow on 25 April 1925; they had three children.

By 1931 Searle had become general manager and vice president of the family firm. He eliminated unprofitable products from the line during the Great Depression, and he reoriented the company's research efforts to develop unique products that could be marketed profitably worldwide. Among the new products were the laxative Metamucil; Aminophyllin, for treatment of respiratory disorders; and Dramamine, which was developed as an antihistamine but was discovered to be the most effective remedy for motion sickness. The company's fortune rested, however, on developing the first effective and inexpensive oral contraceptive for women.

The social activist Margaret Sanger had pioneered family planning and birth control in America. In 1923 she opened the first family planning clinic in New York City. During the 1920s Sanger organized medical conferences concerning hormonal contraceptives, while fundamental research was sponsored by the philanthropist Mrs. Page McCormick. The principle of oral contraceptives, using artificially synthesized derivatives of natural steroid hormones, was understood theoretically in the 1920s. Estrogen and progesterone are natural steroid hormones. Estrogen makes possible the growth of the endometrium, a membrane that lines the womb. It is present in the early stage of the menstrual cycle. Progesterone produces a mucus substance in the lower lining of the womb and inhibits the passage of sperm. It is present in the late part of the menstrual cycle.

In 1937 researchers noted that synthetic progesterone could inhibit ovulation during the early menstrual cycle in rabbits, but at $200 a gram the synthetic progesterone was very expensive. During the early 1950s it was discovered that progesterone could be simulated with synthetic steroids made from a wild Mexican yam. Margaret Sanger urged Mrs. McCormick to fund further research at the Rock Reproductive Clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts. There, John Rock had been studying the promotion of fertility. Meanwhile, the physicians M. C. Chang and Gregory Pincus, at the Worchester (Massachusetts) Foundation for Experimental Biology, were researching estrogen. Rock found that when hormones to induce fertility over months of treatment were stopped, a significant percentage of women became pregnant ("the Rock rebound"). Chang and Pincus discovered that progesterone was effective in inhibiting pregnancy. The three researchers then collaborated on experiments that combined dosages of estrogen and progesterone. In animal tests even a low dosage effectively controlled menstrual bleeding. Moreover, by starting the dosage five days after the menstrual period began and ending it on the twenty-fourth day, ovulation was effectively inhibited. In 1956 Rock's collaborator, Celso Ramon Garcia, conducted extensive clinical trials.

Searle then developed a sequential dosage of estrogen, followed by a dosage of combined estrogen and progestrogen. The sequential dosage was first marketed in 1957 under the trade name Enovid, packaged in a round plastic tray so that the proper pill would be taken during each day of a menstrual cycle. In 1966 Searle marketed Ovulen, which reduced the dosage of estrogen while remaining equally effective. When the pills were discontinued, fertility returned rapidly. G. D. Searle, Inc., boosted its sales from $37 million in 1960 to almost $89 million in 1965. Almost half its business came from Enovid, which cost $2.50 retail per month. A prescription lasted six months, and doctors monitored women for any side effects. During the early 1960s minor side effects (weight gain, headaches, nausea) were noted in a tiny percentage of users. By the mid-1960s there were many press reports of rare major side effects (among them, blood clots leading to strokes, especially in older smokers). At the same time, the press reported on the finding that certain cancers and pelvic infections were less likely to develop among contraceptive users.

Searle's Enovid quickly became known simply as "the Pill." There was a sudden and profound effect on the social and emotional lives of the population. Effective and independent of the sex act, the Pill was hailed by women because it emancipated them from unwanted pregnancies. Sanger's dream for birth control was at last a reality, and discussion of sexual matters had become front-page news. Conservatives railed against looser moral standards, and the Roman Catholic Church roundly condemned the Pill. Nonetheless, by 1966 about 20 percent of American Catholic wives were Pill users.

The American birthrate had been climbing in the 1950s, even after the postwar "baby boom," to a 1957 peak of twenty-five births per 1,000 in population. By 1966 this number fell to 19.1 per 1,000. Federal birth-control program clinics had a 50 percent increase in use of the Pill between 1960 and 1965 alone. Now, poor or disadvantaged women could have prescriptions of the Pill for very little or no cost. Abortion rates, too, fell dramatically. In 1964 four other companies marketed a version of the Pill, and in 1966 two companies marketed "morning-after" progesterone pills. During the 1960s the media proclaimed a "sexual revolution." Family planning became more precise. With the Pill, newlyweds felt confident that a first child would not catch them emotionally and financially unprepared. Middle-aged couples were better protected against late-life "accidents."

Much media attention focused on teenagers, and many questions were asked: Just how old should a teenager be before being allowed to take the Pill? Did parents have the right to prevent their daughters from seeking a prescription for the Pill? Discussions on these moral issues, among others, still revolve around the Pill. Moreover, the media still questions whether the Pill initiated the sexual revolution of the 1960s or whether it was simply a by-product of the times. Nonetheless, by 1975 there were thirty million Pill users worldwide. In 2001 there were one hundred million users.

After Searle retired in 1966, his eldest son became president, and his second son and son-in-law became vice presidents of the family's firm, continuing another generation of what is now a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical giant. At the age of seventy-eight, Searle died of natural causes in his winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida. He was buried in the churchyard of Christ Episcopal Church, Winnetka, Illinois.

There is no book-length biography of Searle. Oral contraceptives are discussed regularly in the bimonthly Family Planning Perspectives. See also Lawrence Lader, "Three Men Who Made a Revolution," New York Times Magazine (10 Apr. 1966) and Jane E. Brody, "The Pill: Revolution in Birth Control," New York Times (31 May 1966). Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times (both 23 Jan. 1978).

Patrick S. Smith

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