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Opening Eyes
Oberlin Alumni Take On Estrogen–and the Drug Industry That Sells It
by Trisha Gura
Illustration by Lindsay Schutz

Barbara Seaman was furious. It was 1957, a year after she'd graduated from Oberlin. In the hospital after the birth of her eldest child, Noah, Seaman wanted to breastfeed. Times were different then. Doctors discouraged the practice after listening to years of hype about baby formula. To make matters worse, Noah's health was faltering.

Suspicious, Seaman asked the hospital staff to identify the pills they were feeding her each morning. "I felt I had the right to know, and the nurses wouldn't tell me," she recalls. She finally learned that her doctors had been prescribing laxatives–laxatives she had been inadvertently passing onto her son through her breast milk.

Seaman was outraged. For her, the incident triggered a crusade against the dispensing of poor medical advice that was ultimately credited for jump-starting the women's health movement.

By exposing the risks of hormone use–first in birth control pills and then in menopause treatments–Seaman has become a muckraking journalist bent on a weighty goal: encouraging women to take control of their health without blindly relying on medical fads. In her recent book, The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women, she argues that the medical establishment, especially the drug industry, has manipulated women through a campaign of clever marketing practices and downright deception.

"The story in Barbara's book is the story of how the pharmaceutical industry misrepresented the value of estrogen for women," says Oberlin graduate Philip Corfman '50, former executive secretary for the Food and Drug Administration's Repro-ductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. "It's a way to begin understanding how drug companies are taking over the health care system."

An Oberlin Professor Makes a Mark
Perhaps Seaman's activism began even earlier than Noah's birth. As a student at Oberlin in the early 1950s, she drifted through writing courses and stalled at the sciences. "I was terrible at the lab stuff," she recalls, while forking a Cobb salad at Josephina's on the west side of Manhattan.

Dressed in a red jacket and a black turtleneck, Seaman's outfit resembles her journalism–full of color, yet drawing attention to something dark and insidious. She can intimidate while staring with obvious intelligence from behind her slate-colored glasses. But she also engenders a gentleness as she laughs and tells her Oberlin story: Desperate to fulfill her graduation requirements, she trudged into Professor David Anderson's Physics for Poets course and wrote a paper about the economic implications of atomic energy. Anderson was impressed. "For somebody who doesn't understand science, you explain it so clearly," Seaman recalls him saying.

She carried Anderson's comments to Cincinnati, where she moved after graduation with her husband at the time. After her son's birth, Seaman channeled her breastfeeding experience into an essay published in Mother's Manual, a magazine with a cir-culation of 80,000. Some 2,000 letters came in response. "Apparently, a lot of women felt as I did," she says.

When Noah was just a year old, Seaman's Aunt Sally–just 49 years old–died of endometrial cancer. Doctors blamed it on the estrogen treatments Sally had taken for menopause relief. It was the first time, Seaman says, that she heard the word Premarin, and the doctor urged her and the other females in the family to stay away from it.

"Healthy baby, healthy aunt, and both of them poisoned by prescription," says Seaman, who responded by writing another article–a cautionary tale on menopause treatments. Her editors applauding, she then glided into a career as a columnist on childbirth and mothering issues for Brides, the Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle, and Ms.

And then birth control pills exploded on the scene.

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