Monthly Archives: December 2012

The inventor of birth control pill, the science of menstruation, and cancer

One Wednesday morning (12 December 2012), I wrote a Facebook status that read as follows:

“Okay it seems that everyone is updating something about 12-12-12. Like what’s the fuss about? Or ya, and henceforth we will never have anything like 13-13-13 and etc etc until the next century.


lemme rather update about something I found rather interesting from the book penned by Malcolm Gladwell. Having not a prior exposure to Biology in my life, this was interesting thesis to indulge in. After reading the chapter about John Rock (The inventor of birth control AKA oral contraceptive), I now understand Why women experience abdominal pains, mood swings and other complications during menstruation and why women who have many kids( 3 or more) have less chances of suffering from cancer?”


Of which, this status was received with more curiosity from two ladies insisting that I share more about this, with more emphasis on Menstruation and Cancer.

Take note that I have never written a book review or a chapter review before, and what you are about to read is what might be describe as a “dry rhetoric”. Bear with me as I try to give an account on how I understood Malcolm Gladwell in that Chapter on John Rock and how he erred in inventing the birth control pill.

I Consider Malcolm Gladwell one of true genius when it comes to letter writing, so much so that I have read all the books he penned from the famous ‘outliers’ to ‘what the dog saw’ including some of the article he wrote for ‘The New Yorker’.  Malcolm Gladwell in What the Dog Saw in the Chapter about John Rock, the inventor of birth control makes moving account and an interesting perspective about women’s health, the pill inventor, religious perspective (the pill and the pope), cancer and the science of menstruation. I will dwelleth on the latter two on instruction of the aforementioned Facebook friends.

The ideal which the inventor of the birth control pill sought to achieve was to curb unwanted pregnancy. However, his ideals were undermined by the church he religiously followed. Although, this was met with much criticism, the birth control pill is widely used today and unfortunately John Rock died not having witnessed the efficiency of the pill he invented. Although the pill is widely used today, it appeared to Gladwell that John Rock did not know (or rather he was not conscious) about women’s health. 

I do not know much about women’s health in general and about the science of menstruation in particular, however Gladwell wrote that “…a women of childbearing age has a menstrual cycle of about 28 days, determined of course by the cascades of hormones released by her ovaries.” It is said that a combination of oestrogen and progestin floods the uterus, of which its lining becomes thick and swollen in preparation of the implantation of a fertilised egg, and failure of which will cause the lining – ‘the endometrium’ – “to be sloughed off in a menstrual bleed”.  In fact one of the respondents to the Facebook status, Queen (not her real name for the sake of anonymity) asked me if I am suggesting that birth control pills cause abdominal pains. No, Queen that is not the case. In actual fact, apparently John Rock knew that the effect of the Pill’s hormones on the endometrium could make women not to menstruate because the pill suppresses ovulation and the oestrogen and progestin decrease the chances of the lining of the uterus.

Another interesting account I picked up from the book is the story about a young scientist name Beverly Strassman who took a voyage to Africa to live with the Dogon Tribe of Mali, with an attempt to understand the reproductive profile of the women in that tribe, and the nature of the biology during times that precedes the modern age, especially owing the fact that the said women never used contraceptives. She (Strassman) also did a study on when and how many times did the Dogon women menstruate during their lifetime if they lived to eight decades or so. She found that on average Dogon women menstruated about hundredth times as opposed to Western women who menstruated somewhere between three hundred and four hundred times.

Strassman further found that the number of menses is not greatly affected by differences in diet, method of subsistence and culture as many people would make us believe. Gladwell wrote that to Strassman and others in the field of evolutionary medicine, this shift from a hundred to four hundred menses is enormously significant.

The writer of the book, Is menstruation obsolete?, the authors Drs Elsimar Coutinho and Sheldon S Segal – leaders in contraceptive researchers – argues that incessant ovulation has become a problem for women’s health. They further said that it does not mean that women are better off the less they menstruate. In fact, there are times where women have to raise eyebrows if they aren’t menstruating.

Apparently, in obese women, a failure to menstruate can signal an increased risk of uterine cancer. In female athletes, a failure to menstruate can signal an increased risk of osteoporosis. Gladwell wrote. For most women, Coutinho and Segal say, incessant ovulation serves no purpose except to increase the occurrence of abdominal pains, mood shifts, migraines, endometriosis, fibroids and anemia. However, the serious of all is the greatly increased risk of some cancers. In no way did these two researchers suggest that incessant ovulation causes cancer, but by the mere occurrence that whenever a woman ovulates, an egg burst through the wall of her ovaries and to heal that  puncture, the cells of the ovary will have to divide and reproduce. After all, cancer occurs because as cells divide and reproduce they sometimes make mistake that cripples the cells’ defence against runaway growth.  

 What I found interesting as I read this chapter was the fact that every time a woman falls pregnant and bears a child, her lifetime risk of ovarian cancer drops 10 percent because apparently, between nine months of pregnancy and the suppression of ovulation associated with breast-feeding, she stops ovulating for twelve months – and saves her ovarian walls from twelve bouts of cell divisions.

It is true that reading gives you intellectual bling bling and more swag than you can ever imagine. Many short stories that Malcolm Gladwell narrates in this book are something that a person my age wouldn’t know, and dare I tell you it will make me an interesting person in the company of uninteresting goats!



Posted by on December 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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