Modern hormonal birth control originated in 1960, when Enovid®, the first birth control pill, was widely marketed for the first time. Refinements of dosage and delivery systems led to introductions of lower-dosage pills in the 1980s, along with a plethora of birth control options, such as the patch, the ring and implantable hormonal birth control. The history of hormonal birth control, however, is actually much older than many people realize; the first form of hormonal birth control is believed to have been a plant called silphion or silphium, which was used to prevent pregnancy as early as 700 B.C.
Ancient Birth Control
Little is known about silphion, because the plant appears to be extinct. Evidence from drawings and writings about the plant suggest that it was in the parsley family and that it might have resembled giant fennel. The plant also was greatly valued, especially after its contraceptive properties were realized, and it appears on coins and in frescoes. After the birth control properties of silphion were realized, the plant was over-harvested, and all evidence suggests that it vanished by the first century A.D. Almost 2,000 years passed before another form of hormonal birth control emerged.
The roots of modern birth control lie in Dioscorea mexicana, a type of Mexican yam. In 1944, researchers founded Syntex Laboratories to exploit the properties of this plant, which produced, among other things, progesterone. Research on the hormone indicated that it was effective at preventing pregnancy in rabbits, and in 1951, it was successfully synthesized. Tests for a hormonal birth control pill began only a few years later, and in 1960, Enovid® went on sale.
When hormonal birth control was initially released, the side effects were quite severe, indicating that the dosage was too high. Tweaking the dosage yielded low-dosage phased pills in the 1980s, and by 1990, the first implantable form of birth control was on the market. This was soon followed by birth control shots.
In 1998, emergency contraception entered the market, and since 2000, several new forms of hormonal birth control have been released, including the birth control patch and insertable devices. The introductions of different dosages and delivery methods have made birth control accessible to women who lead a wide variety of lifestyles. Any woman who is considering the use of hormonal birth control should consult with a doctor to determine the method that is best for her.