Barbara Seaman: Writer who exposed Pill risks

It is a historic event when anyone takes on the might of the pharmaceutical industry and wins, but the writer, medical journalist and activist Barbara Seaman did just that. During the 1960s, Seaman exposed the health risks associated with the contraceptive pill and went on to become a key figure in the women's health movement.

She was born Barbara Rosner to an English teacher mother and a public welfare administrator father. She credited her passion for social justice and writing to her upbringing. Even in her early career as a health writer she introduced a new style of reporting, focusing on the patient rather than the latest medical fad. She was married briefly to Peter Marks, before marrying a psychiatrist, Gideon Seaman.

In 1967-68, after studying history at Oberlin College in Ohio, Barbara Seaman won a Sloan-Rockefeller Science Writing Fellowship at the Columbia University School of Journalism. While there she began work on her first book, The Doctors' Case Against the Pill. After the book appeared in 1969, the allegations it made became the basis for a US Senate hearing. Seaman claimed that the high levels of oestrogen in the Pill had been associated with risks of strokes, blood clots and embolisms. She also exposed the fact that this was known within the world of the drug manufacturers, and even the medical profession. One can only imagine that, with the Sixties in full swing, the decision makers of the time chose to keep this information under wraps.

The protests that occurred during the Senate hearing in 1970 marked the beginning of women's voices being heard in women's health. Seaman described these protests as acts of "feminine disobedience". Alice Wolfson, a fellow activist, repeatedly interrupted the hearing demanding to know "Why isn't there a Pill for men?" and "Why are 10 million women being used as guinea pigs?" These demonstrations were widely covered by the press and the hearing became known as the "Boston Tea Party" of the women's health movement. As a result of the hearing, warnings were introduced on packets of medication for the first time in history.

Following the publication of her second book, Free and Female, in 1972, Seaman was cited by the Library of Congress as an author who raised sexism in healthcare as a worldwide issue. Her third book, Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones (1977), co-authored with Gideon Seaman, exposed the dangers of an oestrogen called diethylstilbestrol (DES) which was being prescribed to women to prevent miscarriages, but was causing cancers in their daughters.

In 1975, Seaman co-founded the National Women's Health Network, an advocacy group based in Washington DC. Cynthia Pearson, the network's current executive director, described Seaman's influence as "profound". "It led to more women in medical school, more written information in patients' hands, the breakdown of rules against dads in the delivery room". Perhaps most importantly, her work made "informed consent" a national issue in America.

By the 1980s her influence had become so widespread that the pharmaceutical industry perceived her to be a major threat. Seaman had started to expose what she believed to be the dangers of Hormone Replacement Therapy. During the following decade she faced censorship and firing from mainstream magazines, who were forced to withdraw her articles for fear of losing their advertising contracts with pharmaceutical companies. "I didn't start out to be a muckraker", Seaman said. "My goal was simply to try to give women plain facts that would help them to make their own decisions, so they wouldn't have to rely on authority figures."

Criticism and blacklisting did not discourage her, and instead she turned her attention to other projects. By 1987 she had finished a biography of the Valley of the Dolls author Jacqueline Susann entitled Lovely Me which later became a film, Scandalous Me (1998).

Seaman's book The Doctors' Case Against the Pill was reissued in 1995 in a 25th anniversary edition. Science Magazine described it as a "book that fuelled women's health activism, patient information and a 'blossoming' of women's health research".

Barbara Seaman continued to dedicate her life to the empowerment of women, and in her later years published The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: exploding the estrogen myth (2003) and For Women Only: your guide to health empowerment (1999, co-edited with Gary Null). Her acts of "feminine disobedience" inevitably put holes in the pockets of pharmaceutical executives. But more importantly, those acts finally gave women a voice in the world of women's health, a world which, until then, had been dominated almost exclusively by men.

Mary Dohnal

Barbara Ann Rosner, writer and activist: born New York 11 September 1935; married first Peter Marks (marriage annulled), secondly 1957 Gideon Seaman (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved), thirdly 1982 Milton Forman (marriage dissolved); died New York 27 February 2008.

Comments