Barbara Seaman, 72; Pioneer In Women's Health Movement

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

Barbara Seaman, 72, a writer and activist who challenged the safety of hormone replacement therapy and early oral contraceptives and became a central figure in the women's health movement, died Feb. 27 at her home in Manhattan. She had lung cancer.

The health movement of the 1970s urged women to educate themselves about their bodies and demand more control over their medical care. Ms. Seaman helped shepherd the movement by raising important, often overlooked questions about adequate testing for drugs.

She was also credited with helping to create the concept of patients' rights, particularly "informed consent" and proper warning labels on drugs.

Over time, she proved correct about the dangers of high doses of the female hormone estrogen in the earliest oral contraceptives. She also denounced hormone replacement therapy, which for decades was promoted as a magic bullet to keep menopausal women young and sexy.

Her books included "The Doctors' Case Against the Pill" (1969), which triggered congressional hearings into the safety of oral contraceptives, and "The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women" (2003), an expos┬┐ of hormone replacement therapy.

In 1975, Ms. Seaman co-founded the National Women's Health Network, an advocacy and watchdog group in Washington that worked to eliminate quotas for women in medical schools and give women the right to information about medical treatments and alternatives.

Ms. Seaman was among the first to question using hormone treatments to address symptoms of menopause, decades before the Women's Health Initiative released its long-term study in 2002 showing that such regimens significantly increase the risk of stroke, breast cancer and other diseases.

Vivian Pinn, a pathologist who directs the National Institutes of Health's Office of Research on Women's Health, said Ms. Seaman felt "vindicated" by the Women's Health Initiative study, for which she was an unofficial consultant.

"She was an advocate who challenged anyone she needed to challenge, including me, and recognized the importance of science" -- not just ideology -- "in responding to questions she raised," Pinn said.

Ms. Seaman was a self-described "muckraker" whose polemical language and approach were sometimes considered distractions by reviewers of her books. She invoked Nazi medical experiments when confronting pharmaceutical companies, the Food and Drug Administration and others in the position to research, market and approve hormone drugs for women.

Ms. Seaman said her tone was justified because she had marshaled evidence that the pharmaceutical industry suppressed or ignored negative clinical studies of their products.

She said she saw transcripts of meetings between contraceptive manufacturers and clinical researchers who knew of women's deaths that possibly resulted from the pill but who joked about tight girdles causing the fatal blood clotting. Ms. Seaman said she never took birth control pills.

Among Ms. Seaman's early targets was Robert A. Wilson, a gynecologist whose best-selling book "Feminine Forever" (1966) described hormone therapy as a cure for what he called women's "deficiency disease."

Wilson, whose book was funded secretly by an estrogen manufacturer, said women taking estrogen at 50 could "still look attractive in sleeveless dresses or tennis shorts."

Ms. Seaman responded, "How do you know that it isn't from the tennis?"

Barbara Ann Rosner was born Sept. 11, 1935, in New York, where her father was assistant commissioner of social services. He mother taught high school English.

After graduating from Oberlin College in 1956, she started writing and editing for women's magazines. She was a columnist for the Ladies' Home Journal in the late 1960s when she began receiving letters from readers concerned about blood clots, heart attack, depression and other serious medical conditions after taking oral contraceptives.

"I started finding out very early on that the patients taking the pill didn't agree with the doctors that it was perfectly safe and simple and wonderful," Seaman said. "The early pills had 10 times the amount of hormones they have now. They were a massive overdose."

She interviewed doctors and officials at health organizations for her first book, "The Doctors' Case Against the Pill," considered by many a landmark text that led Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) to hold hearings in 1970 about the safety of oral contraceptives.

However, Ms. Seaman and other activists said they were appalled not only by the lack of female witnesses but also by testimony from one doctor that "estrogen is to cancer what fertilizer is to wheat." Feminists disrupted the hearings in protest.

Public outcry from the hearings stimulated research to find safer drugs as well as drug label warnings. By the 1980s, manufacturers in the United States drastically lowered estrogen doses in oral contraceptives; they had been lowered years earlier in Britain.

Ms. Seaman wrote "Women and the Crisis in Sex Hormones" (1977) with her second husband, psychiatrist Gideon Seaman. Her other books included a biography of racy novelist Jacqueline Susann, "Lovely Me" (1987), the basis for a TV film staring Michele Lee. Ms. Seaman recently co-authored two books on women's health with Laura Eldridge, including "The Body Politic," an anthology of writings from the movement.

Her marriages to Peter Marks, Gideon Seaman and Milton Forman ended in divorce.

Survivors include three children from her second marriage, Noah Seaman, Elana Seaman and Shira Seaman, all of Manhattan; her stepmother, Ruth Gruber of Manhattan; two sisters, Jeri Drucker and Elaine Rosner-Jeria, both of Manhattan; a stepbrother, David Michaels of Bethesda; a stepsister, Celia Michaels of London; and four grandchildren.

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