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Ancient pregnancy tests

Nowadays every woman knows about home pregnancy test which can be used easily. What about pregnancy identification centuries ago? Had ancient societies any kind of pregnancy test? Were any ancient pregnancy tests described in old manuscripts? It is well known that urine was used in Middle Ages to determine several health conditions and even to diagnose pregnancy. At that period of time some so called “piss prophets” claimed being able to identify several diseases and pregnancy by just looking at the urine color. Some prophets mixed urine with wine for better diagnosis.

Modern pregnancy tests work by detecting trace levels of pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in urine which appeared after egg implantation (6-12 days after fertilization). Modern pregnancy tests can identify very early stages of pregnancy (even 5 days before expected menstrual period).

Old-fashioned ancient pregnancy tests were described on papyrus – some of them have scientific explanation but some look like magic.

Ancient pregnancy tests – wheat and barley test

Ancient pregnancy tests

In ancient Egypt (since 1350 BCE) most popular pregnancy test was wheat and barley test. Women were required to urinate on wheat and barley seeds during several days. First, if woman was pregnant, seeds start sprouting. Second, if wheat seeds sprouted, woman supposed to deliver girl; and if barley seeds sprouted, it was suggested that woman is pregnant with boy.

In 1963 several laboratory tests were made and it was proved that in 70% cases the urine of pregnant women would cause wheat and barley seeds to sprout, while the urine of non-pregnant women didn’t trigger any changes. It should be also mentioned that Egyptian gender identification hypothesis was not confirmed.

Ancient pregnancy tests – onion test

Ancient Greek physician of the Age of Pericles Hippocrates (father of medicine) invented so called “onion pregnancy test”. He declared the possibility of pregnancy detection by inserting raw onion into the vagina for whole night. If in the morning woman would have onion breath, it would confirm absence of pregnancy. It is very interesting how Hippocrates explain the mechanism of onion test action. It was suggested that if woman was pregnant, the presence of embryo would stop spread of smell (“onion perfume”) from vagina through uterus to abdomen.

Ancient pregnancy tests – rabbit test

At the beginning of XX century two German scientists Dr Selmar Aschheim (gynecologist) and his colleague Dr Bernhard Zondek (German-born Israeli gynecologist) suggested rabbit pregnancy test. Dr Bernhard Zondek isolated specific human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) which was discovered in urine of pregnant women. His future work with gynecologist Dr Selmar Aschheim led to development of known “rabbit test”. Scientists noted that human chorionic gonadotropin linked to ovary growth. They injected urine of pregnant woman into sexually immature rabbits or rats or mice – actually injected urine induced ovarian development. Experimental animals’ ovaries were examined after 5 days and bulging masses were found on the ovaries (in cases of pregnancy urine injections). It was confirmation of pregnancy. This is how “rabbit test” was born.

Ancient pregnancy tests – frog test

Frog pregnancy test worked on the same principle as rabbit test. The only difference was that laboratory animals remained alive at the end of test. When pregnant women urine was injected into live toad or frog, these animals produced eggs within 24 hours. It was confirmation of pregnancy (positive pregnancy test).

Ancient pregnancy tests – looking in eyes

In XVI century French Dr Jacques Guillemeau who made pioneer contributions in obstetrics, ophthalmology and pediatrics claimed that by looking into eyes as early as the second month he could recognize pregnancy.

“Pregnant woman gets deep-set eyes with small pupils, drooping lids and swollen little veins in the corner of the eye”.
Dr Jacques Guillemeau (1550–1613), French surgeon from Orléans

Ancient pregnancy tests – visible signs

In XIX century another pregnancy test was suggested by Dr James Read Chadwick, American gynecologist and medical librarian. In 1886 Dr Chadwick introduced his discovery concerning early signs of pregnancy. He noted that at early pregnancy (6-8 weeks of pregnancy) cervix, labia and vagina become dark bluish or purple-red hue, owing to the increased blood flow to the area. This phenomenon known as “Chadwick’s sign of early pregnancy”.


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