Dead Rabbits & Other Historical Pregnancy Tests

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In the ubiquitous Baby Mama trailer, Tina Fey looks at a used home pregnancy test that mocks her with a foreboding blue "NO" in the results box. Although the mock factor is optional, home pregnancy tests can lay it out straight: YES or NO. Whether the results are determined by blue lines, a plus or minus sign, or the plain words, the "pee on a stick" method is a popular way to discover if one is with child. Isn't it interesting that one of life's greatest achievements (new life) can be diagnosed by one of life's most common routines (peeing, albeit on a prophetic stick)? Also as fascinating, this dichotomy existed long before the FDA approved the first home pregnancy test in the 1970s.

Knocked up like an Egyptian

The earliest recorded "peeing on a stick" test comes from those innovative Egyptians. In 1350 B.C., in between building pyramids and wrapping sarcophagi, someone produced a document describing how to determine pregnancy. You guessed it; a speculating woman must urinate on wheat and barley seeds, of course! The ancient papyrus read, "If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all." In 1963, testing this theory found it 70 percent accurate, as the urine of pregnant women contains elevated levels of estrogen that may promote growth in these grains. As far as the gender guessing, that was Ra having a chuckle.

The Sample is in the Chamber Pot

Starting in the Middle Ages and up until the 17th century, "piss prophets" diagnosed many different conditions and diseases based on the color of urine. Since proven unscientific and often incorrect, this medical practice known as a "Uroscopy" often referred to a handy Uroscopy Wheel to help with diagnosis. A 1552 European document described pregnancy urine as a "clear pale lemon color leaning toward off-white, having a cloud on its surface." The aptly named prophets employed another pregnancy test where they mixed urine and wine and watched the alcohol reacting with certain present proteins. In yet another dubious 17th-century test, a ribbon was dipped in a woman's urine and burned. If the smell nauseated her, baby was on the way!

The Mouse Died

Fast-forward to the early 20th century, when scientists first discovered the role hormones played in female reproduction, they identified a specific hormone found only in pregnant woman, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). In the 1920s and 30s, to recognize the presence of hCG, which indicated pregnancy early on, doctors injected urine into an immature mouse, rat, frog, or even a rabbit. If a woman were pregnant, the test subject would go into heat despite its immaturity. To announce their status, women euphemized, "The mouse died" or "I killed the Easter bunny," because killing and dissecting the lab animal confirmed the results. A common misconception arose that if the animal died after injection, it pointed to a positive pregnancy test. But in actuality, all tested specimens were disposed of, much to the chagrin of animal rights activists. This test was known as the A-Z test, named after the founding scientists, Selmar Ascheim and Bernhard Zondek.

To e.p.t.and Beyond

In the 1970s, as a result of the sexual revolution and the presence of reproductive choices, Wampole's two-hour, urine-based pregnancy test became available only to doctors and technicians. The test could be done early on, but the packaging pictured an authoritative man wearing a lab coat, implying that this test was not intended for home use. Other intimidating tools in the box included: test tubes, a plastic rack, three bottles of chemical solutions, a small funnel, pipettes, and a saline solution. What a way to create an atmosphere encouraging relaxation and sample giving!

ept.jpgIn 1977, the e.p.t. (which originally stood for "early pregnancy test," and is now the more comforting "error proof test") became the first home pregnancy test on the U.S. market. The test took two hours and was more accurate when dealing with positive results. In 1978, an issue of Mademoiselle described the original e.p.t.: "For your $10, you get pre-measured ingredients consisting of a vial of purified water, a test tube containing, among other things, sheep red blood cells"¦as well as a medicine dropper and clear plastic support for the test tube, with an angled mirror at the bottom."

Home pregnancy tests evolved to the stick we know now and are still evolving. In 2003, Clearblue Easy's digital pregnancy test ushered in a new generation of home pregnancy tests. In place of a thin blue line, the indicator screen says either "pregnant" or "not pregnant." But if still skeptical, one can always go into a doctor's office for a blood serum test for a definitive answer. Or maybe he has some barley or wheat that have a second opinion.

Sara Newton is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.

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May 5, 2008 - 11:59am
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