Early Pregnancy Tests Were Wacky But Surprisingly Accurate
We’ve come a long way since shoving onions up our hoo-has.
When a woman squats over the toilet bowl with knees akimbo and a hand tucked underneath her she often wonders: Just how did I get here? Not WHY she’s pissing onto a stick — hopefully she knows how that happened — but rather, how pissing on a stick came to be.
Right you are to wonder, m’lady, because the pregnancy test has a fascinating history in human medicine, and it’s pretty much always revolved around pee. Though most trials included zero scientific merit or understanding of the human anatomy, some primitive pregnancy tests had shockingly accurate results.
Pregnancy tests have been used for centuries, with a wide-range of approaches—from ancient Egyptians urinating on grains to the Clear Blue I used during my last scare, we’ve come a long way. Let’s take a wild journey through the expansive history of the pregnancy test.
According to ancient papyrus recordings, women of ancient Egypt peed on wheat and barley seeds to determine both their pregnancy status and sex of their potential offspring. After a few days, they’d look to see what sprouted from the grain. The ancient documents read:
“If the barley seeds sprout or grow, it means a male child will be born. If the wheat sprouts and thrives, it means a female child will arrive in a few months. If the barley and wheat grains never sprout and grow when a woman urinates on the grain seeds, the woman is not pregnant and therefore, will not give birth this time around.”
Pissing on seeds to determine fertility might sound ridiculous, but the method was surprisingly accuracy rate. In 1963, scientists tested the medicinal folklore and found it had a 70 percent accuracy rate for determining pregnancy. When it came to determining the child’s sex, the barley test was useless.
The Egyptians weren’t the only ones to make use of their least favorite foods. The Greek physician Hippocrates declared it possible to determine whether a woman was pregnant by inserting an onion into her hoo-ha and leaving it there overnight. If the woman had onion breath the following morning, she was considered to be without child.
The idea behind the so-called “onion test,” is that the presence of an embryo would stop particular smells from spreading through the body from the abdomen. This misguided theory was accepted as truth in France until the 18th century.
In the 1400s, pregnancy tests got even less scientific. A collection of folk medicine, “The Distaff Gospels,” describes another bizarre pregnancy test: Women placed a metal key in a bowl and urinated on it. Once the key was submerged, they let it marinate for three hours. If the outline of the latch was still visible once removed, the woman was pregnant.
Of course, this practice wasn’t a reliable indicator of pregnancy, but it’s great for those curious about the acidity of their urine.
If you think your job is a bummer, imagine sniffing urine with scrupulous detail for a living. That’s exactly what the “piss prophets” in Europe did. The self-proclaimed experts studied women’s urine for tones, hues and smells, and from that claimed to know whether or not a baby was on the way. The prophets believed that a pregnant woman’s urine was clear and pale, with some clouding toward the surface.
Stranger yet, some prophets would mix the pee with wine to get a better read. Hard as it is to believe, there is some validity to this method, as alcohol reacts with some of the proteins produced during pregnancy. It’s possible the chemical makeup of the “piss-wine” translated additional, pregnancy-confirming information.
As medical science progressed, doctors tried to understand how pregnancy affected the female body. French ophthalmologist Jacques Guillemeau believed you could determine pregnancy by studying a woman’s eyes.
Guillemeau, author of an influential treatise on ophthalmology, claimed that in the second month, “a pregnant woman gets deep-set eyes with small pupils, drooping lids and swollen little veins in the corner of the eye”.
Though this has since been proven wrong, Guillemea was correct about one thing: your vision can shift during pregnancy. It’s the reason women are deterred from getting new contacts or prescription glasses during pregnancy.
Research on reproduction intensified in the early twentieth century when scientists began to familiarize themselves with specific hormones found in pregnant women.
Doctors Bernard Zondek and Selmar Ascheim created one of the more disturbing tests during this time after observing the peculiar affect pregnant women’s urine had on female rabbits; When the urine was injected into the rabbits, their ovaries enlarged. This became the common procedure to determine pregnancy, much to Peter Cottontale’s chagrin.
Scientists soon realized that animals that gestate babies outside their bodies also react to pregnant women’s urine. They used South African frogs to test and conclude the species reacted to HCG — a hormone found in pregnant women. If a frog was injected with urine and laid eggs within the next 12 hours, the pregnancy test results were positive.
Thanks to many dead frogs, scientists increased their level of interest in human reproduction and the role of the ovaries over the next few decades.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, and in 1977, the first at-home pregnancy test was introduced. The problem? It was about as labor-intensive as a Rube Goldberg machine. The test included a vial of purified water, an angled mirror, a test tube and red-blood cells … TAKEN FROM A SHEEP. The tests were a real pain in the you-know-what, but they were far more convenient than the sacrificial frog and bunny trials that came before them.
One user described the complicated procedure as such:
“It took two hours for the results to come in so I had to refrigerate the urine until I came home from work later that day. The test could not be disturbed. You had to put it where it would not feel any vibration.”
A 1978 print ad celebrated the new product and its implications for feminism saying, “The e.p.t. In-Home Early Pregnancy Test is a private little revolution any woman can easily buy at her drugstore.”
Unsurprisingly, women weren’t crazy about turning their bathrooms into urine-analysis lab, so it didn’t take long for new innovations to begin popping up in drugstores. Unilever introduced the first one-piece pregnancy test in 1988. Similar to what we use today, magic pee wands absorbed urine one one side, and gave you the news on the other.
All Images By Ines Vuckovic