What’s on the table adjacent to Winnifred B. Cutler’s granite-topped desk is more telling than anything she’d ever reveal herself—a tiny plastic funnel, a sterling-handled magnifying glass and a pinkish-purple heart sealed in a heart-shaped, glass paperweight. In 1986, Cutler’s co-discovery of human pheromones landed her in Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. It began with a study of an odorless extract from women’s underarm sweat, which she connected to fertility and sexual behavior data. She was the first to establish that fertile humans—like animals—naturally produce pheromones, which elicit a behavioral response in others. Of the four subtypes, opposite-sex pheromones make us more attractive and receptive to sex.
Today the president and CEO of the Athena Institute for Women’s Wellness in Chester Springs is wearing a deep-red sweater, matching lipstick and shoes. An artist in her spare time, Cutler prefers the green found in lush landscapes. But Tom Quay, her vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, insists that red is her favorite color.
“Not true,” she corrects. “It’s Tom’s favorite color.”
Behind Cutler, each chapter of her forthcoming book—set for release in January 2009—is bundled in white three-ring binders. Its working title: Hormones and Your Health: What’s a Woman to Do? Science publisher John Wiley & Sons purchased Cutler’s eighth book to boost its trade division. “It’s excellent science, so I hope it’s read by doctors, too,” she says. “But it’s for the intelligent consumer.”
An 80,000-word tome, the five-year project unravels a number of medical myths, options and decisions facing women. In it, the 63-year-old Cutler contrasts the actual published science with the disparate interests of the FDA, big pharmacies, big hospitals and big insurance. She covers the medical liability issues that drive the research at universities and influence medical society guidelines. Her coherent conclusions are meant to help women make better personal choices.
The book’s premise: Medical communities, drug companies and the media want to survive, so they say and report what’s best for themselves. Cutler claims she’s “an interpreter of the truth,” so her conclusions are objective and scientifically sound. She’s digested and deciphered over 2,500 published studies and cited 900 of them—150 on mammography and breast health alone. Intentionally, she doesn’t address pheromone research—her claim to fame—though she’s always linked quality of life to quality of loving.
Twenty-two years ago, Cutler founded the Athena Institute (first headquartered in Haverford) as a biomedical research center dedicated to improving the quality of healthcare for women. For seven years, she developed, scientifically tested and perfected a human sex attractant formula that led to two popular proprietary pheromone fragrance additives—Athena Pheromone 10:13 (her birthday) for women and Athena Pheromone 10x for men.
Athena launched the women’s product in 1993 and the men’s in 1995, marketing them as cosmetics, not aphrodisiacs. Odorless, they’re added directly to perfume and cologne. Other than one trusted distributor in Mexico, Athena sells directly to consumers in 110 countries. Such topics as sales figures, secret formulas and where it’s manufactured remain taboo—for good reason: There are now 300 knockoffs, Quay says, though Athena’s products remain the “Rolls Royce.”
“It works,” he says. “Every day, [customers will] say, ‘I was Googling divorce lawyers, then Dr. Cutler saved my marriage.’”
Independent researchers have continually tested and substantiated the efficacy of Athena’s pheromones with double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. At Athena, too, there’s ongoing interest in the effects of pheromones on those who feel their attractiveness has been compromised—women who’ve had hysterectomies, breast cancer patients, males who’ve had prostate surgery. The institute is also considering studies of infertile couples and those in marital therapy.
Winnifred Cutler’s mission has been shaped by two life experiences: her mother’s early death and the healthcare she received as a pregnant first-time mother at 19. “I wasn’t treated with any dignity or courtesy—and it bothered me,” she says.
Philadelphia-born, Winnifred Cutler was raised in Elkins Park and educated in the Cheltenham School District. She attended Drexel University before taking five years of individual courses on Penn State’s local campuses while raising two children. Ultimately, she graduated cum laude in 1973 with a B.S. in psychology from Ursinus College, then with a Ph.D. in biology in 1979 from the University of Pennsylvania. A postdoctoral fellowship in behavioral endocrinology followed at Stanford University, where she also launched the Stanford Menopause Study.
After Ursinus, she initially formed a real estate management firm, but she spent all her time reading science textbooks—perhaps influenced by an older brother. “He was always spouting off about physics or electricity,” she says.
Cutler’s love of science wasn’t what her mother considered feminine, especially in the late 1950s and early ’60s. But fashion and interior design were—and that landed her at Drexel. “She was so smart, and I was smart, so she thought I’d never find a man who’d love me,” Cutler says. “She was well-intended but incorrect. Once I focused on science, I was surrounded by men. Science wasn’t limiting at all.”
By 1993, she’d written Searching for Courtship: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Finding a Good Husband. Though not rebellious, Cutler says her mother’s death—when Cutler was 22—liberated her. After that, she deliberately pursued her science career.
These days, Cutler continues to fund the science of others, which furthers Athena’s mission. In May 2006, the institute provided a $25,000 grant to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University Medical School for the investigation of hysterectomy and sexual deficits. Right now, Athena is funding a collaborative effort designed to give future physicians a non-textbook lesson in humanity and dignity via a hospice experience. An undisclosed grant from the institute will help Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church coordinate the program with local colleges and universities; Athena will provide the certificate of completion. If the project works locally, it could migrate across the nation.
Increasingly, Athena has involved itself in the medical school search and application process. A printable 65-page guide is available on the institute’s website. “We want to promote the idea that studying science is terrific,” Cutler says.
Hardly unrelated, these interests represent Athena’s multifaceted evolution, which often has Cutler turning away profitable opportunities that could distract from her mission. “She’s not interested in the roar of the crowd, but in the work—though the camera loves her, and so do audiences,” Quay says.
Even if it’s just an audience of one at the end of the day. After her staff leaves, Cutler answers the phone to take a re-order of 10:13. “It’s my eighth [vial],” the woman says. “My daughter, too.”
“You must both like it,” Cutler responds.
“Oh, we sure do,” the customer says.
“Do you get the flavor?” Cutler asks after hanging up. “That’s such pleasure for me.”
People up to age 85 use her products. She’s even asked her 92-year-old father, Narberth’s Adolph Berg, to give it a try—but he says he doesn’t need it. An avid bridge player, he boasts of having six women in hot pursuit of him already.
“So much of this is serious science, but I also like looking up,” Cutler says. “After so much science for most of the day, I have to play.”
To learn more about the Athena Institute, visit athenainstitute.com.