The transcontinental railroad, the Pill, and May 10


The transcontinental railroad.  The birth control pill.  Two technological innovations that we usually don’t think about together are linked by a day in history: May 10.

The rails of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads met on May 10, 1869.  The news of this event appeared on p. 1 of the New York Times:

The long-looked-for moment has arrived. The construction of the Pacific Railroad is un fait accompli. The inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard and the dwellers on the Pacific slopes are henceforth emphatically one people.

The announcement that the Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill for general use didn’t rate the same attention as the transcontinental railroad.  The Times story appeared on May 10, 1960, on p. 75 and had a more somber tone:

For the first time the Food and Drug Administration has approved a pill as safe for contraceptive or birth control use.

“Approval was based on the question of safety,” Associate Commissioner John L. Harvey said today. “We had no choice as to the morality that might be involved.

”When the data convinced our experts that the drug meets the requirements of the new drug provisions our own ideas of morality had nothing to do with the case.”

The pill that has been approved is called Enovld. It ismade by G. D. Searle and Co., Chicago. Under the clearance granted by the agency it may be used only on doctor’s prescription.

The drug has been on the market for several years but the previous clearance specified it was to be recommended only for treatment of female disorders.

The headline story that day was about the fallout from the U2 Incident: “Khrushchev Warns of Rocket Attack on Bases Used by U.S. Spying Planes.”

Claudia Goldin demonstrated in a series of papers the profound effects the Pill had on everything from family formation to the labor market (see this for a clear summary of her work.)  The Cold War was clearly an important story that day but, knowing what we know now, shooting down Francis Gary Powers wasn’t as important as millions of women getting prescriptions from the doctors for oral contraceptives in the coming years.

It just goes to show important things don’t always show up on the front page of the paper, or the website.