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Sex in the laboratory: the Family Planning Association and contraceptive science in Britain, 1929–1959

  • NATASHA SZUHAN (a1)
Abstract

Scientific and medical contraceptive standards are commonly believed to have begun with the advent of the oral contraceptive pill in the late 1950s. This article explains that in Britain contraceptive standards were imagined and implemented at least two decades earlier by the Family Planning Association, which sought to legitimize contraceptive methods, practice and provision through the foundation of the field of contraceptive science. This article charts the origins of the field, investigating the three methods the association devised and employed to achieve its goal of effecting contraceptive regulation. This was through the development of standardized methods to assess spermicidal efficacy; the establishment of quality, strength and manufacturing standards for rubber prophylactics; and the institution of animal trials to ensure the safety of specific contraceptives. The association publicized the results of its scientific testing on proprietary contraceptives in its annual Approved List of contraceptives. This provided doctors and chemists with a definitive register of safe and effective methods to prescribe.

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References
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1 Borell, Merriley, ‘Biologists and the promotion of birth control research, 1918–1938’, Journal of the History of Biology (1987) 20(1), pp. 5187; Löwy, Ilana, ‘“Sexual chemistry” before the Pill: science, industry and chemical contraceptives, 1920–1960’, BJHS (2011) 44(2), pp. 245274; Soloway, Richard, ‘The “perfect contraceptive”: eugenics and birth control research in Britain and America in the interwar years’, Journal of Contemporary History (1995) 30(4), pp. 637664; Clarke, Adele E., Disciplining Reproduction: Modernity, American Life Sciences, and the ‘Problems of Sex’, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.

2 Marks, op. cit. (1), p. 33.

3 Löwy, op. cit. (1), pp. 255–256.

4 Borell, op. cit. (1), pp. 81–82.

5 Borell, op. cit. (1), p. 85.

6 Sanger, Margaret, ed., Proceedings of the World Population Conference, London: Edward Arnold and Co., 1927, Announcement.

7 Gooday, Graeme, ‘“Vague and artificial”: the historically elusive distinction between pure and applied science’, Isis (2012) 103, 3, pp. 546554, 547.

8 Arapostathis, Stathis and Gooday, Graeme, ‘Electrical technoscience and physics in transition, 1880–1920’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (2013), 44(2), pp. 202211, 203.

9 Edith Howe-Martyn, correspondence, 18 December 1926, quoted in Borell, op. cit. (1), p. 61.

10 Sanger, op. cit. (6).

11 W.H. Welch, ‘Closing address’, 3 September 1927, quoted in Sanger, op. cit. (6), p. 353.

12 BCIC Memorandum on Proposed Re-organisation [c.1931], Wellcome Library, Archives of the Eugenics Society (WL/SA/EUG), WL/SA/EUG/D/12/12.

13 BCIC Sub-Committee Draft Report, 1928, WL/SA/EUG/D/12/12.

14 BCIC Sub-Committee Draft Report, op. cit. (13).

15 BCIC Draft Statement [c.1930], Wellcome Library, Archives of the Family Planning Association (WL/SA/FPA), WL/SA/FPA/A13/5.

16 BCIC Draft Statement, op. cit. (15).

17 BCIC Draft Statement, op. cit. (15).

18 BCIC Draft Statement, op. cit. (15).

19 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, 1930, WL/SA/FPA/A13/5.

20 BCIC Radiological Experiments, General Explanation [c.1932], WL/SA/FPA/A13/5.

21 BCIC Present Scope of Work [c.1929], WL/SA/FPA/A13/5; BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19).

22 Report to the BCIC by H.M. Carleton and H.W. Florey [c.1930], WL/SA/FPA/A13/5.

23 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19); BCIC Present Scope of Work, op. cit. (21).

24 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19).

25 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19).

26 Gooday, Graeme, ‘“Nature” in the laboratory: domestication and discipline with the microscope in Victorian life sciences’, BJHS (1991) 24(3), pp. 307341, 309.

27 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19).

28 BCIC Memorandum on Proposed Re-organisation [c.1931], WL/SA/EUG/D/12/12.

29 BCIC Memorandum on Proposed Re-organisation, op. cit. (28).

30 Memorandum on the Suggested Framing of Rules for the SPBCC, 1926, Wellcome Library, Archives of the Private Papers of Margery Spring Rice (WL/SA/SR), WL/SA/SR17/1–11.

31 BCIC Memorandum on Proposed Re-organisation, op. cit. (28).

32 NBCA Amended Draft of Constitution, 1930, WL/SA/EUG/D/12/12.

33 Contradictory evidence appears in the second medical sub-committee minutes that no such list existed. In response to a chemist's request regarding advertising to the public that he stocked ‘reputable … medically sound’ contraceptives, the committee discussed the ‘possibility … that a statement as to the approved contraceptives might possibly be compiled’. NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, Session One, 17 November 1934, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

34 BCIC Statement of Intent [c.1927], WL/SA/FPA/A13/5.

35 FPA Approved List, June 1952, WL/SA/FPA/A7/3. This is the first claim that the FPA Approved List filled a perceived gap in contraceptive product standards. It asserts, ‘no contraceptive products are listed in the British Pharmacopoeia but for many years the Family Planning Association has investigated the qualities of proprietary contraceptives and made the findings available to interested enquirers’.

36 NBCA Approved List, October 1937, WL/SA/FPA/A7/5. A prior draft list dated October 1936 exists, but this copy is littered with amendments and I do not consider it the first official list.

37 Pickstone, John V., ‘Sketching together the modern histories of science, technology and medicine’, Isis (2011) 102(1), pp. 123133, 128.

38 Loadman, John, Tears of the Tree: The Story of Rubber – a Modern Marvel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 35.

39 Collier, Ann, The Humble Little Condom: A History, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007, p. 134.

40 Clarke, op. cit. (1), p. 167.

41 Loadman, op. cit. (38), pp. 293–311.

42 Standring, George and Reynolds, William, The Malthusian Handbook: Designed to Induce Married People to Limit Their Families within Their Means, 4th edn, London: W.H. Reynolds, 1898, p. 46.

43 NBCA Approved List, op. cit. (36).

44 Slaton, Amy, ‘“As near as practicable”: precision, ambiguity, and the social features of industrial quality control’, Technology and Culture (2001), 42(1), pp. 5180, 52.

45 FPA Approved List, February 1950, WL/SA/FPA/A7/5.

46 Rolleston, Humphry, ‘Birth Control Investigation Committee’, British Medical Journal (1927) 2, pp. 805806.

47 Whittet, T.D., ‘Drug control in Britain: from World War 1 to the Medicine Bill of 1968’, in Blake, John B. (ed.), Safeguarding the Public: Historical Aspects of Drug Control, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, pp. 2737, 31–32.

48 Whittet, op. cit. (47), pp. 27–30.

49 A cytologist is a scientist whose investigations focus on cytopathology, the diagnosis of disease through observation of cellular changes, or cellular biology, which is the investigation of the anatomy, function and chemistry of cells.

50 Voge, Cecil, The Chemistry and Physics of Contraceptives, London: J. Cape Publishing, 1933, p. 224.

51 Borell, op. cit. (1), pp. 250–253.

52 Pickstone, op. cit. (37), p. 128.

53 Baker, John R., ‘The spermicidal powers of chemical contraceptives: II. Pure substances’, Journal of Hygiene (1931) 31(2), pp. 189214, 211.

54 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19).

55 BCIC Summary of Activities, 1930, WL/SA/FPA/A13/5; BCIC Present Scope of Work; 1930, WL/SA/FPA/A13/5.

56 Baker, John R., ‘The spermicidal powers of chemical contraceptives: VI. An improved test for suppositories’, Journal of Hygiene (1934) 34(4), pp. 474485, 474.

57 Baker, John R., Ranson, R.M. and Tynen, J., ‘The spermicidal powers of chemical contraceptives: VII. Approved tests’, Journal of Hygiene (1937) 37(3), pp. 474488, 474. In 1936 the NBCA medical sub-committee implemented research to assess differences in semen potency between regular patients for whom chemical contraception was effective and those using products perfectly who experienced failures. This move to understand the ‘standard of ordinary semen’ warrants mention in a history of contraceptive regulation, since understanding the natural variety of semen potency meant contraceptives could effectively be targeted toward sperm with higher resistance, thus ensuring a higher margin of efficiency.

58 Baker, op. cit. (53), pp. 195–196.

59 Baker, John R., ‘The spermicidal powers of chemical contraceptives: I. Introduction, and experiments on guinea-pig sperms’, Journal of Hygiene (1929) 29(3), pp. 323329, 326–328; Baker, , ‘The spermicidal powers of chemical contraceptives: III. Pessaries’, Journal of Hygiene (1931) 31(3), pp. 309320, 313–316; Baker, op. cit. (53), pp. 192–197.

60 Baker, John R., ‘The spermicidal powers of chemical contraceptives: IV. More pure substances’, Journal of Hygiene (1932) 32(2), pp. 171183, 172.

61 Voge, op. cit. (50), p. 23.

62 Voge, op. cit. (50), p. 224.

63 Baker, ‘I. Introduction’, op. cit. (59), p. 323; Baker, op. cit. (53), p. 192; Clarke, op. cit. (1), p. 188.

64 Löwy, op. cit. (1), pp. 250–251; letter, L.S. Bryant to R.L. Dickinson, 18 March 1933, Harvard Library: Countway, National Committee on Maternal Health Papers, Box 17, Folder 575; Soloway, op. cit. (1), p. 652.

65 The Contact Test: A Method of Measuring Spermicidal Actions, 14 April 1953, WL/SA/FPA/A7/15.

66 British Pharmacopoeia Commission Ad Hoc Committee on Spermicides Minutes, 15 September 1958, WL/SA/FPA/A7/22.

67 Baker, op. cit. (53), p. 189. Work on proprietary contraceptives began after the BCIC amalgamated with the NBCA and the North Kensington Women's Welfare Clinic medical committee conceived the germ of standardization and regulation in 1935.

68 J.R. Baker and M.V. Bowler, Interview Minutes, 5 February 1935, WL/SA/FPA/A7/13/1.

69 NBCA Prices of Contraceptives, 22 February 1939, WL/SA/FPA/A7/5.

70 Jones, Claire, ‘Under the covers? Commerce, contraceptives and consumers in England and Wales, 1880–1960’, Social History of Medicine (2016) 29(4), pp. 734756, 738.

71 NBCA Approved List, op. cit. (36).

72 Fielding, Michael, Practical Advice on Birth Control, London: National Birth Control Association, 1933, WL/SA/SP17/12/17.

73 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, 16 October 1937, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88; The FPA – Past and Future: Speeches at the Annual General Meeting, 20 May 1950, WL/SA/EUG/D/12/16/24.

74 Baker and Bowler, op. cit. (68).

75 Letter, Gilmont Products Limited to J.R. Baker, 19 February 1935, WL/SA/FPA/A7/13.1.

76 Letter, Gilmont Products Limited to H. Holland, 1 March 1935, WL/SA/FPA/A7/13.1.

77 Gilmont Products Limited to Holland, op. cit. (76).

78 Letter, NBCA to Gilmont Products, 19 October 1938, WL/SA/FPA/A7/13.1.

79 Response, Gilmont Products to NBCA, 27 October 1938, WL/SA/FPA/A7/13.1.

80 Gilmont Products to NBCA, op. cit. (79).

81 Gilmont Products Chief Chemist Report on G.P. Ointment, January 1949, WL/SA/FPA/A7/13.1.

82 Gilmont Products to NBCA, op. cit. (79).

83 Baker and Bowler, op. cit. (68).

84 Gilmont Products to NBCA, op. cit. (79).

85 Gilmont Products to Baker, op. cit. (75).

86 Gooday, Graeme, ‘Liars, experts and authorities’, History of Science (2008) 46(154), pp. 431456, 446.

87 Approved List, March 1939, WL/SA/FPA/A7/1; Approved List, March 1940, WL/SA/FPA/A7/1; Approved List, February 1942, WL/SA/FPA/A7/1.

88 The year 1939 was when the NBCA was restructured as the FPA. The association's aims and guidelines were adapted to ensure ongoing public acceptability and applicability.

89 Gooday, Graeme, ‘Placing or replacing the laboratory in the history of science?’, Isis (2008) 99(4), pp. 783795, 788.

90 Pirie, N.W., ‘Biochemistry of conception control’, Eugenics Review (1952) 44(3), pp. 129140, 139.

91 NBCA Circular, February 1938, WL/SA/FPA/A7/1.

92 Birth control’, The Lancet (1930) 216(5577), pp. 147148, 147; Contraceptives: Effect on Fertility, 1943–9, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16A. This folder is dedicated to research requests and letters regarding contraceptives causing sterility and malformation.

93 H.A.R. Binney, Meeting Minutes, 10 January 1955, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20; FPA List of Approved Contraceptives Report, 1953, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

94 Letter, FPA general secretary to P. Schidrowitz, 4 February 1937, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

95 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19).

96 Letter, C. Harvey to S.C.S. Robinson, 2 October 1948, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

97 Harvey to Robinson, op. cit. (96).

98 BCIC Draft Statement of Work, op. cit. (19).

99 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, Session One, 17 October 1936, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

100 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, 6 October 1935, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

101 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, 26 January 1936, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

102 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, op. cit. (101).

103 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Work during 1936, 1937, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

104 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, 5 July 1936, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

105 Letter, unknown FPA member to R.W. Vemes, 4 October 1940, WL/SA/FPA/A7/1.

106 Harvey to Robinson, op. cit. (96).

107 Letter, C. Harvey to I. James, 2 January 1952, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

108 Letter, FPA general secretary to C. Harvey, 14 January 1952, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

109 Memorandum on Harmlessness Tests for the Eugenics Society, October 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

110 Letter, FPA general secretary to P. Eckstein, 5 June 1953, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

111 Letter, P. Eckstein to I. James, 7 November 1953, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

112 Letter, M. Jackson to P. Eckstein, 12 November 1953, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

113 Telephone note from M. Jackson, 28 April 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

114 Memorandum on Harmlessness Tests, op. cit. (109).

115 Eugenics Society, What Is Heredity? [c.1934], WL/SA/EUG/J/17.

116 Letter, I. James to P. Eckstein, 29 April 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16; telephone note from Jackson, op. cit. (113).

117 Results of a New Series of Harmlessness Testing on Monkeys, 8 October 1955, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

118 Memorandum on Harmlessness Tests, op. cit. (109).

119 Draft letter, I. James to P. Eckstein, October 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

120 Results of Harmlessness Tests in Monkeys, November 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

121 Results of a New Series of Harmlessness Testing, op. cit. (117).

122 Results of a New Series of Harmlessness Testing, op. cit. (117).

123 Letter, E. Mears to M. Jackson, 30 October 1959, WL/SA/FPA/A7/16.

124 The medical sub-committee approached Voge in his capacity as a ‘rubber expert’ in 1934. He presented the committee with proof of the shoddy practices and products that were being sold on the open market, claiming that ‘only 55% [of condoms sold] were useable’. He explained the difficulties that prevented mass access to caps; they had to be handmade overseas and were very expensive, costing ten shillings per item. This interaction with Voge likely encouraged the association's interest in standardizing rubber goods. NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, Session Two, 28 July 1934, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

125 Letter, P. Schidrowitz to FPA general secretary, 12 June 1939, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

126 Slaton, op. cit. (44), p. 55.

127 Slaton, op. cit. (44), pp. 58–59.

128 Slaton, op. cit. (44), pp. 59–60.

129 This specification was later revised to ‘800% before ageing, and 720% after ageing’ by Schidrowitz to reflect a new conviction that this expectation was too high. NBCA Medical Sub-Committee and Ad Hoc Sub-Committee Minutes, 20 May 1937, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

130 Memorandum from P. Schidrowitz, 22 February 1937, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20; FPA general secretary to Schidrowitz, op. cit. (94).

131 Letter, P. Schidrowitz to FPA secretary, 14 January 1938, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

132 Letter, H. Holland to P. Schidrowitz, 30 October 1941, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20; letter, P. Schidrowitz to S.C.S. Robinson, 18 October 1948, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20; Results of ‘Dutch Cap’ Test by P. Schidrowitz, 28 April 1949, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

133 Memorandum from Schidrowitz, op. cit. (130).

134 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, 16 October 1935, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

135 NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, op. cit. (134).

136 Letter, FPA acting secretary to P. Schidrowitz, 17 October 1941, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

137 Results of ‘Lambutt’ Cap Test by P. Schidrowitz, 30 April 1942, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

138 FPA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, 20 May 1940, WL/SA/FPA/A7/1.

139 Letter, R.W. Vemes to H. Holland, 3 April 1941, WL/SA/FPA/A7/1, original emphasis.

140 Letter, FPA general secretary to A.R. Reid, 18 March 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

141 Letter, R. Edwards to I. James, 17 October 1953, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

142 Edwards to James, op. cit. (141).

143 Approved List of Contraceptives: Specifications of Tests &c. of Rubber, August 1953, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

144 Letter, FPA general secretary to A.R. Reid, 14 October 1955, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20. The standardization of cap sizes was first attempted in 1935, when the medical sub-committee deemed Prentif Dumas cap sizes unsatisfactory. The committee suggested ‘Messer's Prentif possess themselves of a set of the ordinary Dumas Caps sizes small, medium and large, as made by Lambert, and use them as their standard’. NBCA Medical Sub-Committee Minutes, 13 January 1935, WL/SA/FPA/A5/88.

145 Telephone message from I. James, 8 January 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

146 Test for Contraceptives on the Approved List, 25 October 1954, WL/SA/FPA/A7/20.

147 Test for Contraceptives on the Approved List, op. cit. (146).

Many thanks to Patricia Grimshaw and Joy Damousi for assisting me with the development and refinement of this research; Katrinka Szuhan for her critical editing; and the two anonymous referees for their invaluable comments, criticisms and suggestions, which infinitely improved this article. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Scholarship.

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