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Manuscript Division



Women's Suffrage
Health and Medicine
Blackwell Sisters
Civil War
Red Cross and World War I
Public Health Nurses
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Health and Medicine: Reproductive Health
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“The Complete Dainty Maid Outfit.” Advertisement, n.d. Margaret Sanger Papers (container 252). Manuscript Division. LC-MS-38919-8.

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Among the most famous of public health nurses was Margaret H. Sanger (1879-1966) [catalog record], who for many years led the campaign for birth control in the United States and abroad. In 1914, believing that effective birth control was essential for women's freedom and independence, Sanger published the illustrated pamphlet Family Limitation, in direct violation of the 1873 federal Comstock law, which prohibited the dissemination of contraceptive information. Two years later she opened the nation's first birth control clinic, which resulted in her much-publicized arrest and imprisonment. Undeterred, Sanger proceeded to organize the first American and international birth control conferences, founded numerous organizations, and mounted important legal battles, including the landmark Supreme Court case United States v. One Package. Her papers (130,000 items; 1900-1966; bulk 1928-40) include the records of various birth control groups with which she was associated and document her interest in socialist politics and liberal reform groups. A related set of Sanger pamphlets may be found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at the Department of History, New York University, has made available on its Web site a selection of Sanger documents held by the Library of Congress, Smith College, and other repositories throughout the world (see Manuscript External Sites). Esther Katz, the editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, spoke about Sanger and the process of selecting and editing documents for publication at a Library of Congress “Books and Beyond” program in March 2003, a webcast of which is available for viewing [moving image].

In the early 1950s, Sanger introduced philanthropist Katharine Dexter McCormick to biologist Gregory Pincus (44,000 items; 1920-69; bulk 1950-67) [catalog record], who was then studying the hormonal aspects of mammalian reproduction and had recently begun testing the therapeutic properties of steroid compounds for the drug company G.D. Searle. Shortly thereafter, McCormick provided funding for Pincus to develop the “birth control pill,” an oral contraceptive released on the market as Enovid in 1960. The Pincus Papers include correspondence with McCormick, Sanger, and G.D. Searle officials; reports of trial tests in Puerto Rico and Haiti recording women's experiences, side effects, and personal feelings about the pill; and files relating to the Planned Parenthood Federation and the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology.

Although Sanger and many of her followers campaigned for birth control as a woman's right, other advocates of contraception, including geneticist and demographer Robert C. Cook (19,600 items; 1882-1992; bulk 1940-70) [catalog record] focused on issues of eugenics and population control. Cook's papers include more than two hundred essays by him and others on birth control, overpopulation, medicine, and fertility.

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Newspaper clipping. ca. January 1914. Kate Waller Barrett Papers (container 4). Manuscript Division. LC-MS-11882-4.

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Other aspects of women's reproductive health emerge from the papers of two women doctors, born more than fifty years apart. Before becoming a physician in midlife, Kate Waller Barrett (1858-1925) [catalog record] assisted her minister-husband in pastoral work among Georgia prostitutes. After receiving her medical degree in 1892, she became affiliated with Charles N. Crittenton and later assumed leadership of his National Florence Crittenton Mission, a series of homes designed to rescue “fallen women.” Under Barrett's direction, the missions gradually gave up the goal of reclaiming prostitutes and concentrated on providing homes, guidance, medical care, and vocational training to pregnant unmarried women, encouraging these women to keep their babies rather than abort their pregnancies or give their children up for adoption. Barrett's papers (625 items; 1895-1950) touch on this work as well as on her affiliation with the National Council of Women and her efforts to secure passage of the Mann Act and other women's rights legislation.

Physician, pharmacologist, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official Frances Oldham Kelsey (b. 1914) [catalog record] is best known for her refusal to approve the commercial distribution of the sedative drug thalidomide in the United States, a decision for which she received the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962. Her papers (12,000 items; 1913-97; bulk 1960-70) concern the tragedy surrounding the use of this drug, primarily in Europe, by pregnant women whose children were born with missing, stunted, or malformed limbs. Against great pressure from drug manufacturers, Kelsey and her supervisors held firm, and the publicity generated by their stance helped spark passage of the Kefauver-Harris Amendments, mandating that drug manufacturers provide the FDA with proof of a new drug's safety and effectiveness.

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