Newsletter #35 (Winter 2003/2004)

Fiji Herbs from a Bird Man – Sanger's Continuing Quest for New Birth Control

A world-renowned imitator of bird songs who could extinguish a flame with his high-pitched warble obtains a plant substance in Fiji that is carefully controlled by tribal chiefs because it purportedly prevents conception when brewed and regularly consumed by women. The bird imitator smuggles samples of the herb out of Fiji in hopes of providing birth control leader Margaret Sanger with the perfect contraceptive – easy to take, effective and even the slightest bit tasty.

A bad Hollywood movie pitch? A new novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle? No, you guessed it: another episode in Margaret Sanger's real life quest for safe, effective, doctor-less birth control.

Sanger's Clinical Research Bureau in New York regularly assessed the plausibility of the countless claims of contraceptive breakthrough reported by everyone from livestock farmers to third-world traveling raconteurs. Mostly Sanger and her staff had to deal with business opportunists who formulated natural (and not so natural) concoctions that promised to immobilize sperm, produce a state of reversible sterilization, or induce miscarriage; they tested the most promising of these substances or sent them on to independent labs or interested drug companies. Sanger's close associate in the birth control movement, the physician and philanthropist Clarence Gamble, used his deep pockets and international contacts to obtain and examine a number of plant-based contraceptives – mostly folklore remedies ignored by medical science. By the 1930s, few new ideas for contraceptives, no matter how ludicrous, failed to pass by either Sanger or Gamble, who both held out hope for a stunning new discovery.

In 1939, though preoccupied with the merger of the two remaining birth control organizations into the Birth Control Federation of America, Sanger continued to pursue the most promising new contraceptive formula, an inexpensive spermicidal foam powder, which had been circulating among clinics since 1935. The jury was still out as to its effectiveness and long-term safety. She also continued to follow studies of spermatoxins or sperm immunization brought about by injecting human or animal sperm into the female to produce antibodies lethal to sperm, research that peaked in the mid-1930s. Russian investigators and a Denver doctor had produced startling results with small test groups using spermatoxins, though their findings were never duplicated by experienced researchers.

Always open to hearing about potential new methods, Sanger politely listened to the colorful stories of 70-year-old naturalist Charles Kellogg, who met Sanger while visiting Tucson in early 1939. Kellogg had heard about a birth control remedy indigenous to Fiji that explained the low birth rates of the native peoples there. In a short time he would return to Fiji , where he had been studying the fire-walkers of M'Benga Island. He promised to report to Sanger when he got back to his California home in the summer. (Kellogg to MS, June 21, 1939 [MSM S16:924]; Kellogg, Charles Kellogg, The Nature Singer, His Book [Morgan Hill, CA, 1929], 141.)

Kellogg, familiar to many as the "California Nature Singer" from his days as a headline attraction on Broadway and on the vaudeville circuit, claimed he was born with a syrinx (the vocal organ of birds) in addition to a normal human larynx. A throat specialist in London verified that the half-rings in Kellogg's throat mimicked and were greater in number than those in the most well endowed songbird. This enabled Kellogg not only to reproduce any bird's song, but to extinguish a gas flame with a high-pitched, shrill note, the climax of his stage performance and a feat demonstrated before scientists at the University of California, Berkeley in 1926 during a live radio broadcast. This event prompted the Los Angeles Times to quip that Kellogg should be employed by the city to "sing its conflagrations to sleep." Kellogg was also known for his friendship with the naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs, and for his "travel log," a twenty-two foot hollowed-out section of redwood affixed atop a truck bed that Kellogg drove across the U.S. to publicize the devastation of the redwood forests. (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 14, 1926; New York Times, Sept. 5, 1949; Kellogg, The Nature Singer, 14, 132, 232)

Upon his return from the South Seas, where he nearly lost his life (he doesn't say how), Kellogg described to Sanger how he had won over the confidence of several Fijians, including a young medical student who served as Kellogg's guide and translator. It was through this medical student's mother, the widow of a chief, that Kellogg acquired a sample of the Fiji contraceptive herb as well as directions on how to use it. "As you know," he wrote Sanger, "this knowledge is so secretly guarded I am fortunate in having been given the full instructions and the herbs used. I feel I have something valuable ...." He later reiterated to Sanger that no scientist anywhere knew anything of these herbs, "It is a secret known only to the chiefs and has been carefully and strictly preserved by them." (Kellogg to MS, June 21, 1939 and Feb. 21, 1940 [MSM S16:924;C7:53].)

Sanger was evidently won over by Kellogg's story-telling ability. She told Gamble some months later that Kellogg "makes great mystery out of the natives using a contraceptive herb, and it seems to be mixed up with folklore and religion in great secrecy. They do not trust the white man and none of the English doctors have ever been able to find out just what they used to keep their birth rate down... It's all very interesting and amusing, too, and Mr. Kellogg can dramatize all this in an entertaining and fascinating way." (MS to Gamble, Apr. 5, 1940 [MSM C7:71].)

Kellogg passed on a sample of the Fiji herb and instructions on its use to Sanger, who wrote excitedly to Gamble in August, "Ive got herbs from Fiji which are said to be used to prevent conception. Im hoping this may prove to be the ‘magic pill' I've been hoping for since 1912 when women used to say ‘Do tell me the secret' ‘Cant I get some of the medicine too?'" (MS to Gamble, Aug. 15, 1939 [MSM C6:1040].)

The "herb" in question was taken from what Kellogg called the Kakaula plant – specifically the cambium, the layer of tissue between bark and wood, scraped off and wrapped in a clean cloth. The bundle could then be briefly immersed in water, squeezed into a small cup or basin, and consumed three times a day to produce a state of sterility in females. ("Kakaula used to prevent only conception," n. d., enclosure to Gamble to Randolph T. Major, Sept. 13, 1940 [MSM C7:128].)

Due to illness, both Sanger and Gamble were slow to act on the Fiji herb. Both spent part of the fall of 1939 in the hospital; she suffered a bout of pneumonia and he an ulcer attack. Gamble did make preliminary arrangements with the Merck drug company for testing the herb, but Merck's labs required a greater quantity to do a proper analysis, creating another delay while Kellogg contacted Fiji for more Kakaula. He notified Sanger in December 1939 that he had acquired a larger batch of the herb and was ready to send it on for testing. Sanger was elated at the prospects: ". . . my joy is really unbounded, that you have been able to get this material into the country. . . It is all fascinating and inspiring and I do know if this turns out to be what we think a reliable contraceptive and harmless, that it will be the answer to prayer for millions of poor, down-trodden, over-burdened mothers, not only in this country but throut the world." (MS to Kellogg, Dec. 17, 1939 [MSM C6:1089].)

While waiting for Merck to test the Kakaula, Sanger, Gamble and Kellogg negotiated a patent agreement that would give Kellogg "some returns if returns are to be had" so he could continue to sponsor young medical students in Fiji. "All that Dr. Gamble and I want," Sanger wrote to Kellogg in February 1940, "is to see if there is any basic ingredient in the herbs which will be a preventive and if that can be marketed or distributed on a large scale thru a high class chemical corporation." (MS to Kellogg, Feb. 12, 1940 [MSM C7:47].)

Kellogg responded: "I feel quite confident the herbs will be a success, although by a chemical synthesis I am not so sure. My Fijian medical student thinks we will have to use it pure in order to be effective. I have brewed it and have drunk some of it several times and I find it not at all unpleasant." (Kellogg to MS, Feb. 21, 1940 [MSM C7:53].) He also clarified to Sanger that he could not openly use any proceeds from potential sales of the herb to support the medical school in Fiji as "No one in the school or in Fiji must know one thing about the whole business. I have one source, and only one, for getting the herb, in strictest secrecy from the boy and his mother. From them I can obtain the whole plant and the leaves in quantities desired." Any profits he would quietly funnel to the young medical student or use to pay for another trip to Fiji. (Kellogg to MS, March 15, 1940 [MSM C7:60].)

Gamble clarified that a patent would cover only an extract isolated in the laboratory; no one could have a claim on the plant itself. The rather premature discussion of profits continued until Gamble wrote in May that he thought "the chance of ultimate profits are rather small and relatively distant." On July 16 they came to a formal agreement with Merck, pending Merck's analysis of the herb. (Gamble to Sanger and Kellogg, March 20 and May 23; Randolph T. Major, Merck to Gamble, July 16, 1940 [MSM C7:63, 85, 104].)

Meanwhile Kellogg shared information with Sanger regarding other remedies he had heard about while in Fiji, including an herbal abortifacient the island natives called "stop." He later received a sample of powdered leaves from what he called the Wakokono vine and sent it on to Sanger for testing. But neither Sanger nor Gamble expressed much interest in an abortion herb, and Gamble advised Kellogg to engage Merck or another interested company directly, leaving him out of it. (MS to Gamble, Apr. 5 and Gamble to Kellogg Nov. 7, 1940 [MSM C7:71, 137].)

Early in 1941, Merck reported that animal tests found the herb to be harmless but also ineffective. Merck requested that Kellogg furnish them with fresh samples of the plant for additional testing, but the surviving correspondence then ends abruptly. Merck does not allow outside researchers access to their records, thus any reports on the Fiji herb, if still in existence, are unavailable. Sanger's silence on the matter suggests that the Fiji herb turned out to be a bust. (Gamble to Cecil Damon Wright, Feb. 15, 1941 [MSM C7:189]; Gamble to Mary Lasker, Apr. 5, 1941 [Records of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Sophia Smith Collection, Box 61].)

Kakaula may have been identical to the native Fijian plant Roqa that a British medical officer stationed in Fiji wrote about in 1887 in the Glasgow Medical Journal: "an amusing expedient. . . resorted to with the object of preventing conception . . . sometimes successful and sometimes not." It could have been a relative of Neem, a fast growing tree found in Fiji and many other countries that for centuries has been used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes, including contraception. In fact there were many contraceptive and abortifacient herbs used by women in the South Pacific and studied in the 1930s. The aptly named Dr. Hortense Powdermaker of Yale investigated numerous such remedies in New Ireland, near the Fiji Islands, and wrote that the natives "think they have a method of birth control. Certain leaves are supposed to have the power of making a woman sterile, and others are said to have an abortive value. The leaves are chewed, the juice swallowed, and the pulp spit out. Natives swear by the efficacy of these leaves. But so also do they swear by the ability of the rain magician to bring rain." She goes on to say that men zealously guarded access to the herbs as they were an important source of income. Many other so-called contraceptive plants were studied and tested in the 1940s and 1950s, including Lithospermum, used by Native Americans in the Southwest, and a pea extract, Pisum Sativum, which was found to contain fertility control properties by researchers in India. (Both quotations from Norman E. Himes, Medical History of Contraception [New York, 1936], 24-5; Abraham Stone, "Research in Contraception: A Review and a Preview," in Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Planned Parenthood, Nov. 24-29, 1952 [Bombay, India], 101.)

If the Fiji herb turned out to be little more than a good story, what accounted for the ability of Fijians to control their family size? The very notion of smaller families in Fiji relative to other islands could have been largely based on anecdote and very unscientific observation. More likely Fijians were practicing other forms of birth control, whether or not the Fiji herb got the ultimate credit. A. B. Brewster, another British official in Fiji, wrote in his 1922 account of his forty year tenure in Fiji that mothers nursed their children up to ages five and six. It was also custom that husbands would refrain from intercourse for three or four years after the birth of a child. He noted too that there were a large number of infant deaths. (A. B. Brewster, The Hill Tribes of Fiji [London, 1922], 189.)

The failure of the Fiji herb to work its magic in a laboratory, like the failure of researchers to replicate successful spermatoxin trials, and many other dead ends in the quest for new contraceptives, added to Sanger's decades-long frustration over finding a more suitable female-controlled method than the diaphragm. But these set-backs never inhibited her drive to find the "magic pill" she spoke of some twenty years before it came to fruition.