January 26, 2012
Nowadays, finding out if you’re pregnant is relatively easy — but it wasn’t always that way. Over the centuries, people have come up with downright strange and sometimes revolting tests to figure out whether or not a person is knocked up. Some of them were useless, some required being a chemist in the bathroom, and some caused major ecological disasters.
Check out the long, strange history of pregnancy tests.
Top image: Carmen Seaby on Flickr.
The thing about pregnancy, as a condition, is most people eventually figure out their status on their own. Pregnancy tests, for much of history, have seemed unnecessary.
Still, people have always tried to find ways to peek inside themselves. Some people want to make an early announcement to family. Some need to put their names on a six-year-long waiting list for a private kindergarten, and hope that a year’s worth of kids drop out of the running. Some just wish to experience the sheer joy of peeing on something scientific. Whatever the reason, all those who grab a stick and run to the ladies’ room are participating in a long, occasionally-destructive, and sometimes outright loony march of scientific progress.
Flim-Flam and Hoo-Hahs
There were many ways said to spot a pregnancy early in ancient times, and they all revolve around various things to do with what is known in scientific circles as a woman’s undercarriage. ‘Babies come out of there,’ the ancient wisdom seems to say. ‘So clearly that’s the first place to check.’ The ancient Egyptians used to have a woman urinate on bags of wheat and bags of barley. If wheat sprouted, it was a girl. If barley did, it was a boy. If neither did, there was no pregnancy. (Incidentally, pregnant women’s urine does make wheat and barley grow faster. Think about that the next time you dip into your whole grain cereal.)
The Greeks figured that they could check by applying perfumed linen to the genitals. The mouth and nose, they said, would take on the odor of the perfume if the woman was pregnant.
Medieval doctors, perhaps with a brief flash of insight or perhaps because they were fond of urine in general, focused their attention on liquid excretions. Any way of measuring urine, any way of mixing it with things, spilling it on things, and dipping things into it, became a way to foretell pregnancy.
A needle put in a woman’s urine would rust red or black, if the woman was pregnant. Sprinkled sulfur on urine would cause worms to suddenly appear, indicating pregnancy. Doctors even mixed urine with wine – thankfully just to observe its appearance. Since wine does react with certain proteins, this was as close as anyone at the time really came to being on the right track.
Rabbits and Frogs and Rats, Oh My!
To be fair, the medieval doctors’ methods don’t really sound sillier than anything that was used in the majority of the twentieth century. If someone told you that an injection of a pregnant woman’s urine would make an adolescent rabbit horny, would you believe it? Doctors certainly wouldn’t, which is why they got to horny bunnies by a roundabout route.