When Ilse McCormick ’23, M.A. ’24, created her self-designed major in human sexuality, it was natural that she wanted to learn more about Clark’s role in the creation of the birth control pill.
Her interest in the topic turned into a capstone project and, ultimately, a resource that can aid students, faculty, and staff who are conducting similar research.
“Education about birth control and human sexuality are huge passions of mine,” McCormick says. “I want other folks with that passion to have an easier time researching. It’s important that the community know about the significance of the birth control pill as well as the eugenics-based agenda of the time.”
The birth control pill was developed and released in 1960 by the Worcester Foundation of Experimental Biology, which was co-founded by biology Professor Gregory Pincus. Pincus was previously a professor at Clark, where he conducted research that contributed to the development of the contraceptive.
McCormick’s capstone project examines Clark’s and Worcester’s historical connection to the pill, including unethical testing on mentally ill men and women at Worcester State Hospital, the role of eugenics in the pill’s creation, and population-control rhetoric that circulated during clinical trials in Puerto Rico.
When McCormick made an appointment with Clark librarian Rachael Shea to help her sift through journal articles, she ran into a hiccup. Using search terms like “birth control” often retrieved articles from a political science perspective.
“I found information that was adjacent but not exactly what I was looking for, and very little on Pincus himself,” she says.
At the Worcester Public Library, McCormick accessed archival databases with information about Pincus’ work and the Worcester Foundation. With each new query, McCormick determined how to adjust search terms to fill in research gaps.
“I found the right verbiage to use. Using ‘birth control’ and ‘Puerto Rico’ led me straight into documents about Pincus’ trials,” she explains.
McCormick realized other Clarkies could encounter similar roadblocks. This inspired her to create a guide to assist anyone researching birth control and reproductive justice. She designed an academic resource map that provides detailed instructions for navigating Clark resources, such as the Goddard Library databases and stacks. The document suggests which databases are best for seeking out historical information, newspaper articles, or scholarly journals; lists key search engine phrases; and recommends books located in the Goddard Library, such as “The Control of Fertility” by Pincus and “Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization” by Khiara M. Bridges. McCormick also offers tips on ways to combine search terms to produce the largest number of results.
“The complex narratives of birth control research require a multiperspective and often multidisciplinary approach,” she says.
McCormick, who was president of Menstrual Equity Alliance on campus, has been interested in reproductive health and menstrual equity since first hearing the term “period poverty” at the performing arts high school she attended in St. Paul, Minnesota. McCormick received no formal sex education at school beyond some instruction in an anatomy class.
“I remember being frustrated at the time,” she says.
McCormick hopes to continue studying birth control and reproductive equity as a graduate student and wants to expand her scope to include interviews with people around Worcester.
“I’m really excited to dive deeper into learning about health inequity and possible solutions,” she says.