Gregory Goodwin Pincus

views updated May 21 2018

Gregory Goodwin Pincus

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.

Further Reading

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. □

Pincus, Gregory Goodwin

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Woodbine, New Jersey, 9 April 1903; d. Boston, Massachusetts, 22 August 1967)


Pincus is best known for his work with his associates in the development of the birth control pill. He received the B.S. degree at Cornell University in 1924 and a master’s and doctorate in science at Harvard in 1927, working under the geneticist W. E. Castle and the animal physiologist W. J. Crozier. Pincus lived in Europe from 1929 to 1930, studying at Cambridge with F. H. A. Marshall and John Hammond, both pioneers in reproductive biology, and then at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute with the geneticist R. B. Goldschmidt. In 1930 he returned to Harvard and was appointed an assistant professor in 1931. His pioneer work, The Eggs of Mammals, was published in 1936. He was at the University of Cambridge in 1937 and became a visiting professor in 1938 at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Pincus conducted research on stress for the U.S. navy and air force during World War II. In 1944 he and Hudson Hoagland established the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, which soon became interationally known as a center for the study of steroid hormones and mammalian reproduction. Pincus became a professor at Tufts Medical School in 1945 and at Boston University in 1951. In 1944 he organized the annual Laurentian Hormone Conference and edited the first twenty-three volumes of its proceedings, Recent Progress in Hormone Research (1946-1967).

Encouraged by Margaret Sanger, in 1951 Pincus and M. C. Chang started their studies on the effects of various newly synthesized hormones on reproduction in laboratory animals and found that several progestational compounds administered oially could prevent pregnancy, mainly by inhibition of ovulation. In collaboration with J. Rock and C. R. Garcia, Pincus immediately extended these studies to humans and perfected the oral contraceptive pill.

With his associates Pincus published about 350 papers on tropism in rats, genetics of mice, fatherless rabbits, fertilization and transplantation of eggs, diabetes, cancer, schizophrenia, adrenal hormones, and aging. He made significant contributions to knowledge of the effects, metabolism, and biosynthesis of steroid hormones. Pincus was coeditor of The Hormones, volumes 1-5, and his book, Control of Fertility, was published in 1965. He died of myeloid metaplasia, probably due to his early work with organic solvents.

Pincus was prominent in the study of mammalian reproductive physiology and endocrinology for more than thirty-five years. Some of his contributions in the early 1930’s concerned processes involved in mammalian fertilization and development. With increasing knowledge of steroid hormones in the early 1940’s, his attention became increasingly focused on the roles of these substances in general physiology and especially in reproduction. In the early 1950’s, when powerful, orally active, synthetic hormonelike compounds were produced, Pincus and his associates seized the opportunity to develop an oral contraceptive. Their success was such that they produced that pharmaceutical rarity, a chemical agent that is virtually 100 percent effective. More important, the work of Pincus and his colleagues has transformed family planning in all the parts of the world in which it is systematically employed.


Pincus’ works include The Eggs of Mammals (New York, 1936); “The Comparative Behavior of Mammalian Eggs in vitro and in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,83 (1940), 631-646, written with H. Shapiro;“Studies of the Biological Activity of Certain 19-Nor Steroids in Female Animals,” in Endocrinology, 59 (1956), 695-707, written with M. C. Chang et al.; The Control of Fertility (New York, 1965); and“Control of Conception by Hormonal Steroids,” in Science, 153 (1966), 493-550.

M. C. Chang

Pincus, Gregory

views updated May 14 2018

Pincus, Gregory

Endrocrinologist Gregory Pincus (1903-1967) is best known for developing the oral contraceptive, or birth control pill. He also investigated the biochemistry of aging, arthritis, cancer, and the adrenal system's response to stress.

Pincus was born in Woodbine, New Jersey. Both of his parents had interests in agriculture and the arts, and his father taught at an agricultural school. In 1924 Pincus graduated from Cornell University, where he not only studied science but founded a literary magazine. In 1927 he received master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University.

After further study in Europe, Pincus joined Harvard's biology faculty. In 1938 he joined the faculty at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, as an experimental zoologist (a scientist who studies the behavior and lifestyles of animals). In 1944 he co-founded the independent Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, where he continued earlier research on the way the reproductive system and female hormones worked.

Sex Hormones

Ever since the discovery of sex hormones, scientists had been searching for a safe, effective way to use these hormones to either increase a woman's chances of becoming pregnant, or keep her from getting pregnant at all. Several scientists in the 1920s proved that the hormone progesterone prevented ovulation (release of an ovum from the female), but it was very hard to synthesize for widespread use.

Subsidized Study

Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) noticed Pincus's research and arranged to get him financial research support from philanthropist Katherine Dexter McCormick (1875-1967). In the 1950s, Pincus and his colleagues focused their efforts on developing a hormone combination that would fool the woman's body into thinking it was already pregnant, thus keeping any new ova (eggs) from being released.

Biologist Min-Chueh Chang carried out the experiments on laboratory animals. He worked with various compounds of progestin, a synthetic progesterone developed in Mexico by American chemist Carl Djerassi (1923-) and physician John Rock, who had already been experimenting with progesterone to cure infertility.

Tests of the new substance were carried out in several states, including California and Massachusetts. Because contraception was illegal in Massachusetts, the initial tests were to treat infertility rather than prevent pregnancy. In 1960 the compound was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as the first contraceptive pill. The pill was manufactured by G. D.Searle Company under the name Enovid. Enovid was sold only by prescription.

Gregory Pincus continues to be hailed as the primary force behind the oral contraceptive. Among the many honors he received during his life-time was membership in the National Academy of Sciences.

Pincus, Gregory Goodwin

views updated May 21 2018


PINCUS, GREGORY GOODWIN (1903–1967), U.S. biologist. Born in Woodbine, New Jersey, he pursued his interest in the genetics of physiological characteristics. In post-doctoral studies at Cambridge and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute he began investigations of steroid control of reproductive cycles. After teaching appointments at Harvard, Cambridge, and Clark University, he rounded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in 1944 with H. Hoagland. As research director he pioneered development of the widely used oral contraceptive. Having discovered earlier that the hormone progesterone, present in increased amounts during pregnancy, prevented ovulation, Pincus tested some 200 progesterone-like compounds for their effectiveness as ovulation suppressors. In 1954 he and Dr. John Rock began clinical testing of the most promising of these. Their method proved to be virtually 100% effective in preventing conception. Its widespread adoption in the ensuing decade had great medical and sociological consequences.

Pincus was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1939) and the National Academy of Sciences (1965). He wrote The Control of Fertility (1965), co-authored Steroid Dynamics (1966), and was editor of Recent Progress in Hormone Research, proceedings of the 1966 Laurentian Hormone Conference (vol. 23, 1967).


Current Biography Yearbook 1966 (1967), 314–6; New York Times (Aug. 23, 1967), 45.

[George H. Fried]

Gregory Goodwin Pincus

views updated May 29 2018

Gregory Goodwin Pincus


American endocrinologist who, with Min Chueh Chang and John Rock, developed the first effective birth-control pill. Pincus co-founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in 1944, where he studied steroid hormones and reproduction. At the encouragement of Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth-control movement in the United States, Pincus turned his attention to the use of synthesized hormones to prevent pregnancy. After experimenting with as many as 200 potential substances, Pincus and his collaborators derived a steroid from the wild Mexican yam that could inhibit ovulation without serious side effects. The "pill" was first made available to the public in 1960.

Pincus, Gregory Goodwin

views updated Jun 11 2018

Pincus, Gregory Goodwin (1903–67) US biologist who helped to develop the contraceptive pill using synthetic hormones. Pincus wrote several articles on hormones and a book, The Eggs of Mammals (1936).

About this article

Gregory Goodwin Pincus

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic