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date: 27 January 2023

Guttmacher, Alanfree

(19 May 1898–18 March 1974)

Guttmacher, Alanfree

(19 May 1898–18 March 1974)
  • Shari Rudavsky

Guttmacher, Alan (19 May 1898–18 March 1974), physician and birth-control advocate, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Adolf Guttmacher, a leading Reform rabbi, and Laura Oppenheimer, a social worker. Alan had an identical twin, Manfred, with whom he was very close throughout his life, and a sister. His early years were happy ones in a household where Judaism set the guiding tone. Alan’s paternal great-grandfather had been the chief rabbi of Gratz, and when the family immigrated to the United States they maintained their faith. But Guttmacher renounced his faith after his father died suddenly when Alan was sixteen. Two years later, in 1915, the twins entered Johns Hopkins University. Alan originally planned to pursue a career in English or history, but a brief stint as a private in the army in 1918 changed his direction.

After Alan and Manfred received their bachelor’s degrees in 1919, both young men decided to continue at Johns Hopkins in its medical school. During medical school, Alan developed a strong interest in anatomy and in research. In 1921 he and Manfred published their first scientific paper together. They tossed a coin to see which twin’s name would go first; Alan lost. In 1923 both twins graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School. Reports conflict about where Guttmacher went next. Some suggest that he taught anatomy for two years, first at Johns Hopkins University and then at the University of Rochester; other accounts place him in an obstetrics internship at Hopkins immediately after his medical school graduation. During this period he studied with both Johns Hopkins’s J. Whitridge Williams, a leader in obstetrics, and in New York with Mount Sinai Hospital’s Robert Frank, the founder of gynecologic endocrinology. In 1927 he was named an instructor in obstetrics at Johns Hopkins.

Guttmacher’s early years in medicine were relatively quiet ones, during which he concentrated on setting up his practice in Baltimore and on his young family. In 1925 he had married Leonore Gidding, with whom he had three daughters. His brother also remained in the area, and the two men delighted in pretending to be one another when patients went to the wrong office. His brother would enjoy a distinguished medical career himself, eventually becoming medical adviser to the supreme court bench in Maryland.

From the start of his career, Guttmacher had ties to the birth control movement. During his internship, he was inspired to join the nascent movement after he saw a woman who had died from a botched abortion. He was also known for his practice of giving patients a “straight-forward account” of what they should expect in their pregnancies. Most other doctors did not discuss this topic, considered a delicate one. In 1933 he wrote a frank guide for expectant mothers and fathers, titled Life in the Making. In 1943 he was named chief of obstetrics at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. Four years later he won the prestigious Mary Lasker Award for his work with Planned Parenthood, and in 1952 he was promoted to associate professor at Johns Hopkins.

That same year, New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital recruited him to become the first director of their newly combined obstetrics/gynecology department. At the same time, Guttmacher was named a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University. His years of practice had already persuaded him that every child born should be a wanted one, and in his position of chief of obstetrics he started programs on abortion, sterilization, and contraception—three areas that physicians had hitherto found too controversial to address. He rapidly became known for his liberal views concerning abortions. The procedure was then illegal throughout the United States, unless a woman could get a medical dispensation on the grounds of her own health. The hospital finally asked Guttmacher to cease performing so many abortions, to avoid gaining a reputation as an abortion mill.

But Guttmacher continued to campaign for birth control. When he got to New York, he immediately joined the national Planned Parenthood organization and served on their National Medical Committee. Shocked to learn that doctors could not prescribe contraceptives—particularly for the poor—he set about trying to reverse the ban. In 1958 he was finally successful. He was also an early advocate for artificial insemination, which struck some as a form of adultery but which he referred to as “decent and humane.” In 1959 he published Babies by Choice or Chance. The following year, he sought a publisher for a book he wanted to write, a compendium on birth control. Two publishers turned down his proposal, wary of the subject, before Ballantine accepted it. In 1961 two books by Guttmacher appeared, The Complete Book of Birth Control and Planning Your Family. He spent that year at Boston’s Harvard Medical School as a visiting professor of maternal and child health.

In 1962 Guttmacher returned to New York to assume the presidency of the Planned Parenthood Federation. Although he was chosen for his medical expertise and liberal outlooks, as one colleague, Frederick Jaffe, wrote of him after his death, “He looked like an old-fashioned man and had a penchant for old-fashioned virtues.”

Guttmacher was also a consummate and caring clinician. By the end of his career, he estimated that he had personally delivered about 7,000 babies and had borne clinical responsibility for the delivery of more than 100,000. Though some considered him egotistical, he had a very human side. He was an avid tennis player and had a warm sense of humor. In his office he displayed a figurine of an Indonesian fertility goddess who had nine children attached to her.

Guttmacher nevertheless was remembered more for his efforts to prevent children from being brought into the world. On Guttmacher’s death, Alden Whitman, in a New York Times obituary, observed that “what Dr. Guttmacher sought was to assure women the right to plan their whole lives, including when and if to have children.” This was a right that Guttmacher wanted to assure not just for American women but for women around the world. Soon after becoming president of the federation, he traveled throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, spreading the gospel of birth control to these countries. He was known for saying that the world’s two major problems were atomic energy and the population explosion.

As president of Planned Parenthood during the early years of the Sexual Revolution, Guttmacher witnessed one of the major changes in birth control in this century—the advent of the birth control pill. Although some doctors urged caution, Guttmacher came out wholeheartedly in favor of hormonally regulating the ability to conceive. Throughout the 1960s, as sexual mores started to loosen, Guttmacher was called upon to comment. In 1966 he testified before Congress, saying, “We really have the opportunity now to extend free choice in family planning to all Americans, regardless of social status and to demonstrate to the rest of the world how it can be done. It’s time we get on with the job.”

A popular speaker on college campuses, Guttmacher took the following position: “When you give the kids the keys to your car, be sure to give them contraceptives too.” Often students were too embarrassed to ask him questions in front of their peers so they would submit them in writing. In response to the question of “What advice would you give a woman who never intended to marry?” Guttmacher responded, “Don’t die a virgin.” In 1970 he collected the wisdom he had shared in person into a book, Understanding Sex: A Young Person’s Guide. Numerous colleges recognized him for his work, bestowing on him the Margaret Sanger Award in 1972.

Known as the elder statesman of the birth-control movement, Guttmacher died in New York City of chronic myelogenous leukemia, the same disease that had taken his brother seven years before him. One of the final triumphs of his life was seeing the repeal of the ban on abortion in 1972.

Bibliography

Guttmacher’s papers are at Harvard University’s Countway Library. An interview with him is in the Family Planning Oral History Project at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College. For more information on Guttmacher’s life, see Joseph J. Rovinsky, “In Memoriam,” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 41 (1974): 503–4. For accounts of Guttmacher’s fight to legalize abortion, see Michael S. Burnhill, “Humane Abortion Services: A Revolution in Human Rights and the Delivery of a Medical Service,” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 42 (1972): 431–38. See also, Malcolm Potts, “Natural Law and Planned Parenthood,” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 42 (1975): 326–33, and George J. Langmyhr and Harold I. Lief, “Alan Guttmacher, M.D.: His Role in Teaching Human Sexuality,” in the same volume, pp. 445–51. Obituaries are by Frederick Jaffe in Family Planning Perspectives 6 (1974): 1–2, and by Alden Whitman in the New York Times, 19 Mar. 1974.