Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 263–264.
PMCID: PMC2844293

Book Review

The fertility doctor: John Rock and the reproductive revolution
Reviewed by Lara Marks

Margaret Marsh and  Wanda Ronner.
The fertility doctor: John Rock and the reproductive revolution,  Baltimore,  Johns Hopkins University Press,  2008, pp.  374, £16.00, $29.95 (hardback  978-0-8018-9001-7). 

Today reproductive medicine has become an important component of health care in the developed world. Whether it be an infertile woman desperate to have a baby or a woman looking for a means to prevent conception, reproductive medicine has the potential to help whether it be in the form of in vitro fertilization or an oral contraceptive pill. The power of medicine to aid these women, however, is relatively recent. As this engaging and methodically researched biographical book by Marsh and Ronner points out, many of the reproductive tools available today stem from the work of one individual: John Rock. Rock’s work was not confined to women. He had a deep interest in male infertility, setting up one of the earliest separate infertility clinics for men in 1949, and was one of the first to explore the possibilities of developing a male contraceptive pill.

Using the previously unavailable personal papers of John Rock, Marsh and Ronner provide a goldmine of information about a man whose life and work not only touched the lives of thousands of people but helped to transform social, political and religious attitudes to fertility and contraception. Starting at a time when reproductive medicine was barely recognized as a specialism, this biography provides an important reminder of the personal challenges pioneers face in developing new medical fields. While inundated with patients, Rock struggled to raise money and recognition for his work and his clinics, and was frequently penniless himself.

The son of second-generation Catholic Irish American parents, Rock started his working life as a timekeeper on a banana plantation for the United Fruit Company in Guatemala. Sent originally to the country by his businessman father, Rock’s experiences there had a profound impact on his future career. Moved by the awful conditions which he witnessed among the fruit cutters, and miserable about his overall inability to change their dire circumstances, Rock realized his true vocation lay not in business, as his father had hoped, but in medicine. His interest in medicine was sparked by the friendship he had begun in Guatemala with Neil McPhail, a medical expert in tropical diseases.

What stands out in this biography is the profound empathy Rock showed for the plight of his patients and his desire to provide the best medical care possible. This is a far cry from the unethical practice many feminist writers ascribed to Rock during the 1970s and 1980s. When treating infertile women with new drugs, for example, Rock would check for adverse reactions by first trying the compounds on himself. Initially fearful about possible side effects of the contraceptive pill, Rock also took great precautions when launching its first clinical trials, determined that his patients should not be exploited. Strikingly, Rock’s meticulous monitoring of participants in the first oral contraceptive clinical trials infuriated and frustrated Katharine McCormick, the chief feminist funder of the development of the pill, who viewed such steps as unnecessarily laborious and time-consuming. Only once the pill had passed many hurdles of safety and trial would Rock become an enthusiastic supporter, and indeed promoter, of the contraceptive.

This biography of Rock provides detailed insight into the difficult challenges a doctor faced in pushing at the boundaries of reproductive health on the medical front as well as on the wider cultural, social and religious front. As both a Catholic and a doctor, Rock played a significant role in trying to change the Catholic Church’s stand on contraception. While failing to win the Pope’s approval of the contraceptive pill, Rock’s work helped millions of Catholic couples around the world to justify the use of contraception to their consciences and to each other, and paved the way for new meanings of sexuality and parenthood.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press