The little pill that could

Summary

You've probably never heard of Ferdinand "Nand" Peeters. But the unassuming Flemish gynaecologist (pictured) was behind one of the world's most ground-breaking medical developments, the birth-control pill.

Although America lays claim to the world’s first oral contraceptive, a Flemish doctor made a better one

You've probably never heard of Ferdinand "Nand" Peeters. But the unassuming Flemish gynaecologist (pictured) was behind one of the world's most ground-breaking medical developments, the birth-control pill.

Peeters' own children only learned in 1995 - 35 years after the fact - about their father's role in developing what is now the most widely-used contraceptive in the world. While the US medical community and media was already heralding "the pill" - which would empower millions of American women and usher in an entire sexual revolution - Dr Peeters was developing a much better version, specifically - unlike the American version - to prevent pregnancy.

In recent press stories celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth-control pill, though, you didn't see mention of him. Apart from the contraceptives section of Dresden's Hygiene Museum - where his children learned about his work - Peeters' contribution to one of the century's most influential inventions is largely forgotten.

"My father spent many weekends behind his desk writing dissertations, so of course we knew that he was involved in various research projects. But that he contributed to the development of the contraceptive pill - that came as a complete surprise to us," says Marc Peeters, the eldest of Ferdinand's six children.

As is the case with so many inventions, more than one person would claim to be the father of this brainchild, but it would be least of all Peeters. During the 1950s, numerous scientists developed synthetic female hormones that could be administered orally. In 1957, the American physiologist Gregory Pincus launched Enovid, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only as a cure for menstrual disorders.

Ignoring the mounting criticism after its initial introduction - some from within his own ranks - that the hormone levels contained in Enovid were too high, causing significant side effects, including nausea, headaches and dizziness, Pincus officially launched Enovid as an oral contraceptive on 23 June, 1960, backed by the full approval of the FDA.

While countless women across America eagerly adopted the new contraceptive, Peeters was quietly and diligently working on a study commissioned by German pharmaceutical giant Schering into a similar hormone preparation. Schering, unwilling to openly conduct research into an oral contraception due to Germany's Nazi past, sidestepped the complex situation by commissioning Peeters in neighbouring Flanders to do the research.

In the winter of 1959, Peeters, who was head of gynaecology at the Sint-Elisabeth Hospital in Turnhout, conducted a small-scale study in the rural Kempen areas of Antwerp and Limburg provinces. It would last little more than five months and involve only a handful of participants, yet it would lead to the development of Anovlar - a contraceptive pill that contained much lower hormone levels yet the same effectiveness as Enovid, with far fewer side effects. Anovlar was introduced in Europe in June of 1961, almost exactly one year after Enovid.

"We'd suffered enough"

That Peeters was the driving force behind the crucial 1959 study that would optimise the hormone levels in the pill was known only to a select medical in-crowd - until Knack magazine published a story on him last month.

Peeters was a modest (you can hardly find a photograph of him) and religious man who lived a simple life in Turnhout, where he often saw patients die due to complications of childbirth. His ambitions and work ethic, including his role in the development of the pill, were largely driven by a social conscience: he strongly believed in a woman's right to control her own fertility in order to protect and preserve her own life.

Margriet Lievens, now 79, was one of the women who took part in Peeters' ground-breaking study. "My husband and I wanted four children so, after we married, we started straight away," she told Het Nieuwsblad in a recent interview. "Soon our daughter Ann was born. Almost immediately, I was pregnant again, but this time things went wrong. Our daughter Annemie died shortly after birth. I became pregnant four more times, but things kept going wrong: one baby was still-born, two more died shortly after birth. Finally, our son Joris made it through. We had already lost four children, and the doctor thought that we'd suffered enough."

"After the birth of Joris, Dr Peeters made a proposal: he was testing a new medicine that prevents pregnancy. Would I like to try it? I agreed to the proposal because my husband and I didn't want go through the pain of losing yet another baby. I am proud to have been a guinea pig for the birth control pill."

Fifty years later, it is estimated that more than 100 million women worldwide use the pill. In Belgium, more than 60% of women have a prescription. And, while Gregory Pincus is now world-famous, almost nobody has heard of Ferdinand Peeters. Why did Peeters keep quiet about his contribution to such a significant development, even to his own children?

The reason for his decades-long silence can most likely be found in the 1968 "Humanae Vitae" decree by Pope Paul VI, which prohibits all forms of artificial contraceptive. Peeters was a humanist, but he was also a Catholic. In 1964, he presented a lecture at the congress of the Catholic Daughters in Malta on the usefulness of the pill. Its regulation of the menstrual cycle, he argued, enabled couples to more freely use "the rhythm method" - abstinence from sex on certain days (the only family planning method tolerated by the Vatican).

Damned if you do

Four years later, Peeters must have struggled with the church's final "Humanae Vitae" ruling on contraception - it classified his invention as immoral. But he didn't fight the church. "My father led the gynaecology department of a major Catholic hospital. In these situations, it is not always wise to invite controversy by engaging in public battles," explains Marc Peeters. "It's interesting though... years later we found stacks of correspondence that my mother had kept: piles of letters by Catholic clergy attacking my father's views and actions, but also others, from clergy within the church, that were full of praise and support for my father's work."

While Peeters' contribution to the development of the pill may today be the one that puts him in the spotlight, his commitment to his profession and to protecting the lives of women didn't stop there. Even less well-known is the fact that he contributed to the development of Rhogam, an injectable blood product used to protect a mother and foetus with incompatible blood types. (Rhogam protects an Rh-positive foetus from antibodies produced by its Rh-negative mother.)

"Our father was always very enterprising, also as gynaecologist," says Marc Peeters. "He was always using the problems he encountered in his consultancy to record important results: from Rhesus factor incompatibility, painless childbirth or pre- and
post-natal exercises, to incontinence or the protective properties of hormone treatments after menopause."

Ferdinand Peeters died in 1998 at the age of 80. "When we finally found out that my father had been instrumental in the development of the contraceptive pill, it was unfortunately too late to ask him about it. By then he had suffered a massive stroke that sadly saw him spend the last 10 years of his life unable to walk or talk... we're not even sure he recognised us anymore."

Although Peeters' development of the contraceptive pill - an invention that has irrevocably changed the demographic fibre of western society - has remained a low-key story remembered and told by few, the local press has finally cottoned on to the story. And in 2012, Turnhout is organising a special exhibition in honour of "the stepfather of the pill".

In search of Flanders’ pill-popping pioneers

In 2012, Turnhout will be Flanders’ second-ever City of Culture (following Ostend this year). Organisers of the year-long events calendar want to hear from women who took part in Ferdinand Peeters’ study in 1959-1960 for inclusion in a special exhibition dedicated to the doctor’s instrumental role in developing the first contraceptive dedicated to the prevention of pregnancy. “They must be between 70 and 90 years old by now,” says Karl van den Broeck, editor-in-chief of Knack magazine, who is assisting with the exhibition. “There is therefore still a chance that we can find these first ‘modern’ women of Europe. They deserve a prominent place in the exhibition.” Interested parties can contact van den Broeck at karl.van.den.broeck@knack.be or through the Knack office at 02.702.46.51.

 

The little pill that could

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