STAMP VIGNETTE ON MEDICAL SCIENCE
John Rock: Pioneer in the Development of Oral Contraceptives
Gynecologist and obstetrician John Charles Rock is credited, along with endocrinologist-biologist Gregory Goodwin Pincus (1903-1967), with developing the first effective oral contraceptive. The introduction of “the Pill” in 1960 initiated a worldwide sociomedical revolution and led to the use of the pill by millions of women throughout the world.
Rock was born on March 24, 1890, in Marlborough in northeastern Massachusetts (about 13 miles northeast of Worcester). His father was a successful businessman in Marlborough. In 1906, Rock left home to attend the High School of Commerce in nearby Boston. After his graduation in 1909, Rock worked for a few years as an accountant, first on a banana plantation in Guatemala and then for an engineering firm in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. Neither job was fulfilling and proved to him that he disliked business work and was not successful at it.
Rock enrolled at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass, in 1912 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1915. He attended Harvard Medical School in Boston and graduated with an MD degree in 1918. He specialized in nervous disorders in medical school but subsequently changed his field of major interest to obstetrics and gynecology.
In 1919, Rock was an intern at the Massachusetts General Hospital and became a resident in urology. He also underwent residency training at Boston Lying-In Hospital and became a house surgeon in gynecology at the Free Hospital for Women in Brookline (4 miles southwest of Boston) in 1920.
Rock entered private practice in 1921. A year later, he began his association with Harvard Medical School when he was appointed an assistant in obstetrics, an association that lasted from 1922 to 1956; from 1947 to 1956, he was clinical professor of gynecology at Harvard. In 1944, with Harvard scientist Miriam F. Menken, Rock achieved the first fertilization of a human ovum in a test tube.
In 1953, Rock accepted an invitation from Gregory Pincus of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology to participate in an intensive effort to develop an oral contraceptive. Pincus and Rock had worked together since the 1930s because much of Pincus’ research on ovulation and fertilization in rabbits paralleled Rock’s work in humans. Pincus had begun systematic screening for ovulation-suppressing drugs in 1951 and had reached the point in his research at which clinical work with humans was necessary. Rock’s interest in a pill that affected human reproduction grew from his use of progesterone as a therapeutic agent in his work with childless patients. The secretion of progesterone, a female hormone, is triggered by ovulation. Rock began experimenting with progesterone in 1950. He then turned his attention to the possibility of synthetic compounds that could be clinically feasible. In December 1954, after Pincus had proved in animal studies that steroids similar in molecular structure to progesterone are effective and harmless, Rock began the first tests with synthetic oral contraceptive steroids in humans. Rock conducted his studies at The Rock Reproduction Clinic, which he founded in 1956 in Brookline.
Beginning in 1956, full trials on the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill were conducted under the general supervision of Pincus among women in Brookline, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and elsewhere. In 1957, the US Food and Drug Administration authorized marketing of the corticosteroids for miscarriage and certain menstrual disorders and in 1960 licensed the pill for sale to the public.
On December 4, 1984, at the age of 94 years, Rock died of a myocardial infarction at Peterborough (southern New Hampshire). A stamp promoting family planning that was issued by the Marshall Islands in 1999 indirectly honors John Rock and Gregory Pincus.