In 1965, Brown physician sparked furor over the Pill

By
Monday, February 5, 2007

When Toby Simon was in college in the 1960s, it was nearly impossible for an unmarried woman like her to get birth control pills. Undaunted, Simon bought a box of Cracker Jacks, put on the fake diamond ring she found inside and told her doctor she was getting married and wanted to go on the pill. It worked.

Simon, who became the University’s first director of health education at Health Services in the 1980s and is now the director of the Bryant College Women’s Center, was one of the many young women affected by the controversy that surrounded birth control in the 1960s. Concern about the pill centered around fears that it would promote promiscuity among women and lead to a surge in premarital sex and a nationwide decline in moral standards.

The controversy raged especially bitterly at Brown, which made international news on Sept. 28, 1965 when The Herald reported that Roswell Johnson, the University’s director of Health Services, had prescribed birth control pills to two engaged but unmarried students at Pembroke College, the University’s women’s college that merged with Brown in 1971.

Though physicians at a handful of other colleges, including the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota, had also prescribed birth control pills to students, Brown was the first to publicize the fact, Simon said. Newspapers and wire services across the country picked up the story, which broke just a few months after another story involving contraception made headlines – that June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Connecticut’s ban on contraceptives in Griswold v. Connecticut.

Johnson defended his decision, telling reporters then that both women involved were “mature people, already engaged, and they both had been referred to me by clergy” and that prescription of the pills was his own “private orientation” and not University policy. He also said he had thoroughly interviewed the women, who were both over 21, before he wrote the prescriptions. He also told reporters he would not have prescribed the pills without the consent of the students’ parents and without “a great deal of soul searching.”

“I want to feel I’m contributing to a solid relationship and not contributing to unmitigated promiscuity,” he added.

Brown students and President Barnaby Keeney also defended Johnson’s choice. “I’m satisfied with his performance and judgment,” Keeney told the Minneapolis Tribune.

M. Charles Bakst ’66, the editor in chief of The Herald at the time, wrote an editorial entitled “A Bitter Pill” that ran the same day as the announcement of the prescriptions. The editorial praised Health Services for its “practical and far-sighted” approach. The Pembroke Record, the newspaper at Pembroke College, also supported the move.

But public response to the University’s policy was overwhelmingly negative. On Oct. 20, the Arkansas Democrat published the findings of the latest Gallup poll in which three out of four adults said they disapproved of giving birth control pills to college students. The Democrat said the public’s objection centered on what it considered the “open invitation to immorality” implied by such a policy.

“Our young people have too much freedom now. Why should we foster promiscuity?” one disapproving citizen told the Democrat.

“It only condones illicit behavior. It gives young people an easy way out,” said another.

Similarly, an Oct. 2 editorial in the West Central Tribune, a Minnesota newspaper, declared: “The fact that this particular college is taking action in this matter is a confession that there is a major moral problem at the school. Perhaps instead of easing the road for indulgence the college should instead as part of its work offer a course for all the students to take about morality, the sanctity of sex and try to clean up this looseness.” Even the Rev. Julius Scott Jr., the University’s chaplain, said he felt Johnson’s action “documents the moral ambiguity of the contemporary university campus.”

Bakst said the controversy surrounding the birth control issue was part of a larger problem, what he identified in his editorial as a “Victorian concept of standards” that prevailed at Brown and Pembroke, even in comparison to other Ivy League institutions.

“It was like the Dark Ages here,” he recently told The Herald. While he praised University administrators for supporting Johnson’s move in his editorial, he also slammed them for their “double standards,” referring to their rules regulating the curfew and dating policies of Pembroke students.

Looking back at the controversy over four decades later, Simon praised Johnson, who died in 2000, as a “hero who stood up to the criticism,” and Bakst recalled him as “very open and forthright.” In a pre-Roe v. Wade era, Simon said, Johnson was probably compelled to write prescriptions for students to prevent abortions. “He was just a quiet person who went about doing it,” she said.

The controversy surrounding birth control has significantly quieted down since the 1960s. Lynn Dupont, assistant director of Health Services, said she has worked there for 18 years and hasn’t heard any criticism of the University’s policy of prescribing birth control pills to students or of the emergency contraceptive that is now available at Health Services and CVS, among other places.

“It hasn’t always been this way, though,” said Simon. “Somebody had to take a stand on this and, wouldn’t you know, it was Brown.”