Bitter Pill

The Fertility Doctor
John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution
Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner
Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95, 384 pp.

For Catholics of a certain age, John Rock’s name evokes distant battles. Popularly viewed as the “father” of the birth control pill (“stepfather” was more accurate, according to Rock), the Boston physician and cradle Catholic was also famous for a 1963 book that argued for a modification of the church’s ban on all modes of artificial contraception. (The book was ghostwritten, as it happens, by Planned Parenthood professionals, although clearly expressive of Rock’s own views.) At least in the American context, Rock’s was one of the earliest lay voices to challenge the teaching publicly, and by far the most prominent.

But although he was eulogized at his death in 1984 mainly in terms of the pill, Rock’s medical career was largely devoted to problems of human infertility. He was seventy when the pill was initially marketed for contraceptive purposes in 1960. By that time he was already famous, having come to public notice in the 1940s when he and assistant Miriam Menkin claimed to have achieved the in-vitro fertilization of a human egg. In the 1950s, several popular magazines ran profiles of Boston’s renowned “fertility doctor”—the last, best hope of barren women longing to augment the baby boom.

The Fertility Doctor is thus aptly titled, and its authors are at their formidable best when dealing with this dominant aspect of Rock’s career. Joint authors of an earlier study on the...

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About the Author

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.