John Rock (American scientist)

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John Rock
Born March 24, 1890
Died December 4, 1984
Known for Combined oral contraceptive pill

John Rock (March 24, 1890 – December 4, 1984) was an American obstetrician and gynecologist. He is best known for the major role he played in the development of the first hormonal contraceptive, colloquially called "the pill".

Early life and career[edit]

Rock was born in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University medical school in 1918 and founded his own medical practice a few years later.[1] Rock and his wife raised five children.[2]

Rock was a pioneer in in vitro fertilization and sperm freezing.[3] He helped many of his patients achieve pregnancy and became known as a "ground-breaking infertility specialist."[1]

As his career progressed, Rock also became known for his acceptance of birth control. (Birth control was illegal in Massachusetts until the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut.) In the 1930s, he founded a clinic to teach the rhythm method, the only birth control accepted by the Catholic Church. In 1931, Rock was the only Catholic doctor to sign a petition to legalize birth control. In the 1940s, he taught at Harvard Medical School—and included birth control methods in his curriculum. Rock also coauthored a birth control guide for the general reader, titled Voluntary Parenthood and published in 1949.[1]

Pill development and promotion[edit]

In 1951 and 1952, Margaret Sanger arranged for funding for Gregory Pincus's research of hormonal contraception. In 1952, John Rock was recruited to lead the clinical trials of the new contraceptive pill. In 1955, the team announced successful clinical trials of the first birth control pill.[2] Enovid, the brand name of the first pill, was put on the market in 1957 as a menstrual regulator. In 1960, it gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a birth control method.[4]

Rock was 70 years old when the birth control pill was approved. Biographies note that he could have retired even before Pincus approached him to help develop the pill.[1][2] But over the next eight years, Rock campaigned vigorously for Roman Catholic approval of the pill. He published a book (The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control), was featured in Time Magazine and in Newsweek, and gave a one-hour interview to NBC.[2] In 1958, Pope Pius XII had approved use of the pill to treat menstrual disorders. Rock believed it was only a matter of time before the Catholic Church approved its use as a contraceptive.[3]

In 1968 the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae entrenched Catholic opposition to hormonal contraception. Rock was profoundly disappointed. For the first time in his life, he stopped attending Mass.[2]

Conception of the natural and its implications[edit]

Rock has been criticized for his conception of the natural female menstruation cycle and the long lasting implications of his decisions. Rock made a conceptual connection between the Calendar-based contraceptive methods and the pill, in order to gain the approval of the Catholic Church. Knowing that the Pill reduces the need for frequent menstruation, Rock introduced seven placebo pills per pack to simulate a "natural" cycle, stating that "women would find the continuation of their monthly bleeding reassuring." As a result, publicly accepted notions such as the standard 28 day cycle; the need to menstruate on a regular basis; and the pill as a hormonal state of pregnancy have remained salient and continue to inform decisions regarding women's health.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d American Experience (2001). "People & Events: Dr. John Rock". The Pill. PBS. Retrieved November 29, 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Birth control pioneer born". Mass Moments. 2009. Retrieved November 29, 2009. , which cites:
    McLaughlin, Loretta (1982). The pill, John Rock, and the church: the biography of a revolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-56095-2. 
  3. ^ a b c Gladwell, Malcolm (2000-03-10). "John Rock's Error". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2007-06-17. 
  4. ^ Junod SW, Marks L (2002). "Women's trials: the approval of the first oral contraceptive pill in the United States and Great Britain" (PDF). J Hist Med Allied Sci 57 (2): 117–60. doi:10.1093/jhmas/57.2.117. PMID 11995593.