John Rock Biography (1890-1984)

gynecologist, obstetrician

John Rock was a gynecologist, obstetrician, and medical researcher who playeda significant role in developing and promoting the use of oral contraceptives. As a leading authority on the reproductive system and embryology, he contributed to the understanding of infertility and reproductive problems and founded the Rock Reproductive Clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts. A devout RomanCatholic, he also challenged his church's opposition to the use of the birthcontrol pill .

Rock, one of five children, was born March 24, 1890 in Marlborough, Massachusetts, to Frank Sylvester Rock and Ann Jane (Murphy) Rock. His father was an enterprising businessman who owned a liquor store, dealt in real estate, and promoted the local baseball team. The younger Rock graduated from Boston HighSchool of Commerce and worked for a year and a half as an accountant for a fruit company in Guatemala and then with a construction firm in Rhode Island. Rock was fired from both jobs and decided to follow his father's advice to attend college.

Graduating with a baccalaureate degree from Harvard in 1915, he received theM.D. degree from Harvard Medical School in 1918. Rock interned at Massachusetts General Hospital, doing his residency in urology there and also at BostonLying-in Hospital. After one year as a surgeon at Brookline Free Hospital forWomen, he set up his own practice. His long professional relations with Harvard Medical School began in 1922 when he was appointed assistant professor ofobstetrics.

Rock opened one of the first fertility and endocrine clinics at the Free Hospital for Women in the mid-1920s. At that time his main concern was solving reproductive problems rather than birth control. In 1944, along with Harvard scientist Miriam F. Menkin , Rock fertilized the first human egg in a test tube. He is also credited with the first recorded recovery of human embryos 2 to17 days after fertilization as well as establishing the fact that ovulation occurs 14 days before menstruation.

In the early 1950s Rock began experimenting with progesterone, the female hormone that suppresses ovulation. Progesterone is secreted by the body during pregnancy so that no eggs are discharged--nature's way of preventing overlapping pregnancies. He surmised that giving the reproductive system a "rest" by injecting childless women with progesterone might increase fertility when theinjections were stopped. Though he was aware of the contraceptive possibilities of the hormone, he ignored those aspects for fear of the state's anti-birth control laws. At that time in Massachusetts, each instance of birth controladvice would result in a fine of $1000 and a possible five-year prison sentence.

Rock corresponded with scientists Gregory Pincus, the world's foremost authority on the mammalian egg, and M. C. Chang, a specialist in the biology of sperm, about the possibility of developing a useful progestin, or synthetic progesterone, that could be given orally. With Pincus and Chang intent on investigating the hormones contraceptive properties, Rock's focus began to shift inthat direction as well. Many pharmaceutical companies had developed progestins but none had been tried on humans. Chang and Pincus had methodically testedhundreds of variations of progestin and found two that could be safely tested on women. While Rock began the first tests for treatment of sterility on 50females in 1954, simultaneous investigations into the effectiveness of progestin as a contraceptive were also undertaken. The researchers were amazed todiscover that although 15 percent of the women on natural progesterone ovulated, none of those using the oral progestins did.

At this point Rock left the clinic at the Free Hospital for Women, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 65, and opened the Rock Reproductive Clinic. Realizing the need for more extensive tests, but aware of the legal andsocial complications involved, he chose to do field trials in Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Mexico, with a progestin manufactured by G. D. Searle Company. Of the women who followed directions, none became pregnant. The studies were now ready to present in the United States.

In 1959 Searle applied to license the "Pill"--as the oral progestin became known--as a contraceptive, choosing Rock to present the findings of the experiences of 897 women before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The requirement at the time was that a drug must be proven safe and not necessarily effective. However, the young reviewer, who was aware of the implications of the Pill, was thorough in his examination, requiring further lab tests before approval. On May 11, 1960 the FDA approved Searle's Enovid, the first drug approved in order to prevent a medical happening. By 1964 some four million women were on the pill.

Rock was a devout member of the Roman Catholic church, whose traditional position was that no unnatural form of birth control be used. Believing in the right of choice, Rock became an outspoken activist for the use of contraceptives to control population explosion, in direct opposition to the teachings of the church. In 1931 he worked for the repeal of a Massachusetts law against the sale of birth control devices, and in 1945 he began teaching students at Harvard Medical School how to prescribe them. Rock took on the hierarchy of theCatholic church, arguing that the pill was a variant of the rhythm method. Using a strategy of logic, he showed that the pill of natural hormones extended the time when a woman was naturally sterile, hence increasing the rhythm method.

In 1963 he took his case through the mass media in a book, The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor's Proposal to End the Battle Over Birth Control. The book defended the morality of the pill and urged science and religion to unite on a system of population control. He was strongly criticized by conservative Catholic theologians but was described in the press as David taking onGoliath. As a result Pope Paul IV appointed a papal commission to study the issue. Although the commission recommended the pill, the hierarchy said no. With a clear conscience that he was right and the church leaders had made a mistake, Rock remained a devout Catholic, attending mass daily until his death on December 4, 1984.

Rock was a member of many societies, including Planned Parenthood, and was afounding fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Among the awards he received were the Lasker award from Planned Parenthood in1940 and the Ortho award from the American Gynecological Society in 1949. Heis credited not only with being the "father" of the first birth control pillbut also popularizing and selling it to a skeptical world.

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