Prenatal Exposures Oral History Project
The “Hidden History” of Prenatal Drugs:
A conversation with June Reinisch, PhD
"There was a gigantic growth in all kinds of pharmaceuticals after World War II. Since there was this idea of the fetal placental barrier, there was the notion you could treat the mother without interfering with the baby. That went on for much longer than it should have."
June Machover Reinisch, PhD, is a psychologist who has conducted pioneering research on the behavioral and developmental effects of medications prescribed by physicians during pregnancy, particularly synthetic hormones and compounds now known as endocrine disruptors. She is also well known for her leadership of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University, where she served as director from 1982 to 1993. She has published more than 100 scientific papers in such journals as Science, Nature, JAMA, American Psychologist, Hormones and Behavior, MMWR, JPSP, Archives of Internal Medicine, and the British and American Journals of Psychiatry.
Dr. Reinisch was born and raised in New York City. She received her B.Sc. in Psychology from New York University, her M.A. from Columbia University Teachers College in 1966, and her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Columbia University.
She has developed and followed several cohorts of children affected by prenatal exposures, including, with co-investigator the well-known epidemiologist Erik Mortensen, the Prenatal Development Project (PDP) in Denmark. The PDP evaluated the developmental effects of 1959-61 pregnancy exposure to steroid hormones and psychoactive drugs, particularly synthetic progestin, corticosteroids and barbiturates. The PDP database is unique for its breadth and depth as well as its combination of prospective longitudinal and cross-sectional perspectives. Reinisch and Mortensen are now utilizing the PDP dataset to evaluate possible links between some prenatal exposures to medications of the early 1960s and outcomes in grandchildren.
In 1977, Reinisch published a study, “Prenatal Exposure to Synthetic Progestins and Estrogens: Effects on Human Development,” demonstrating that synthetic steroid hormones, which were often given to pregnant women in the decades after the war for the ostensible prevention of miscarriage, affected the personality development of the exposed offspring. Jill Escher, nee Jill Gilbert, was one of her exposed research subjects. After Jill first discovered her prenatal exposures in 2010, found Reinisch’s 1977 study online in 2011, and realized she had been one of the study subjects, she contacted Dr. Reinisch (whom many people call "Dr. June") in 2012 as part of her quest to discover more about her drug exposures and the broader medical context in which they occurred. The conversation below took place four years later.
Interviewed by Jill Escher, June 2016