Along with providing financial help, McCormick also provided more covert aid, including smuggling diaphragms into the United States to supply Sanger's birth control clinics throughout the 1920s. In 1927, she hosted a reception at her home in Geneva for delegates attending the World Population Congress. Although they failed to secure the support of the League of Nations (Catholic delegates had threatened to walk out unless Sanger's name was removed from the proceedings), McCormick and her fellow advocates were still able to win important concessions. Unfortunately, there were limits to how far McCormick's support could extend. Since she was still locked in a bitter struggle with the McCormick family for control of her husband's fortune, most of her financial assets could only be used for more socially acceptable causes, such as schizophrenia research. She managed to provide some covert support for contraceptive research and Sanger's international work though.
As part of her search for a cure for her husband's schizophrenia, Katharine McCormick also developed what would be a lifelong fascination with endocrinology. Based on the research of Harvard endocrinologist Roy G. Hoskins and the possible role of defective adrenal glands in mental illness, she established the Neuroendocrine Research Foundation at Harvard Medical School and funded the publication of the journal Endocrinology. With Stanley's death on January 19, 1947, Katharine inherited more than 35 million dollars from her husband's estate. Despite a hefty inheritance tax and substantial legal fees (it took five years to settle her husband's estate, including the sale of Riven Rock), the money that she inherited from Stanley, along with the ten million dollars that she inherited from her mother in 1937, made Katharine Dexter McCormick one of the wealthiest women in the U.S. at that time. In Stanley's memory, she would later found Stanley McCormick Hall at MIT to provide dormitory space for two hundred female students. While she terminated her involvement with the Neuroendocrine Research Foundation after Stanley's death, her ties to the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology would come in very handy during the next chapter of her life.
Finally free to act as she saw fit, Katharine McCormick turned her considerable resources to providing women with a better method of birth control. Both she and Margaret Sanger agreed on the need for a safe and effective oral contraceptive, as easy to take as an aspirin tablet but capable of preventing pregnancy as needed, despite very different visions of how it could be achieved. While Sanger suggested spreading funding across different research projects, McCormick already knew from her own experience that endocrinology research would provide the needed breakthrough. And it was with that goal in mind that the two women met with Gregory Goodwin Pincus in 1953.
Already renowned for his work in reproductive technology, Gregory Pincus had met Margaret Sanger in 1951 and had received a small grant from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America to begin hormonal contraceptive research. Along with his colleague, Min Chueh Chang, Pincus had demonstrated the effectiveness of progesterone in inhibiting ovulation. When McCormick and Sanger went to Pincus' laboratory on June 8, 1953, Katharine McCormick was impressed enough to give him a cheque for $40,000 on the spot. It would be the first of many such cheques and she even moved to Worcester, Massachusetts so that she could monitor the development of the birth control pill more closely. McCormick impressed everyone involved with the project with her iron determination and the need to enter clinical trials as soon as possible. Elizabeth Pincus, Gregory Pincus' wife, described her as a warrior who "carried herself like a ramrod. Little old woman she was not. She was a grenadier". Almost all of the estimated two million dollars that went into the clinical research and subsequent trials came from her.
Pincus and his associate, John Rock, could not do open research using hormones for contraception (which was still illegal in most states) so the first clinical trials were carried out with infertile patients in Massachusetts. After the inital research trials with progesterone and several different progestins proved successful, more extensive clinical trials were carried out in Puerto Rico. Despite concerns about side effects (which Pincus and Rock disputed based on their own research experiences in Massachusetts), the first oral hormonal supplement, Enovid, was formally approved as a contraceptive in 1960 (it had initially been marketed as a treatment for menstrual disorders). While women were initially cautious in trusting this radical new approach to birth control, its popularity grew rapidly and over twenty percent of all American woman of childbearing age now use one of the various oral contraceptive products that were eventually developed from Pincus and Chang's original research. More than 100 million women worldwide use some form of oral contraceptive and that number is still growing. The social revolution that the birth control pill unleashed is still unfolding.
As for Katharine McCormick, her role in the development of the birth control pill was largely forgotten in the years following its release. When she died on December 28, 1967, her obituary wasn't carried in most papers except for for those few that honoured her for her philanthropy. Gregory Pincus also died in 1967 and his obituary, which proclaimed him to be the developer of the birth control pill, made no mention of her at all. In her will, Katharine McCormick left five million dollars to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and one million dollars to the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. She was inducted into Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 2000 and the PPFA founded the Katharine Dexter McCormick library in her honour.
Would the birth control pill have come into existence without Katharine McCormick's financial assistance and determination? Perhaps, but i's introduction would certainly have been delayed by decades. It was the crash program that she funded and encouraged with her enthusiastic vision that allowed birth control to become a major issue in the years that followed. Today's world might be very different without it.