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8 Historical Methods of Detecting Pregnancy

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Home pregnancy tests are kind of magical—they’re like those litmus test things from junior high science, except they can tell you whether you’ve got a baby in there. These tests work by detecting trace levels of the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in urine; hCG is present after egg implantation, which occurs six to 12 days after fertilization, and is secreted by the cells that are beginning to form the placenta. Home pregnancy tests became widely available in 1978, although they took two hours to develop and were accurate for negative results only 80 percent of the time. Nowadays, they can supposedly tell as early as five days before your missed period.

Before the invention of this miraculous device, the most reliable test was just to wait and see. But while it might be a nice surprise to find out you’re pregnant the old-fashioned way—barfing, missing periods, having a baby—women still wanted to know as early as possible whether or not they were harboring a tiny human.

So how’d they do it? Weirdly enough, it always comes back to pee.

1. The Wheat and Barley Test

One of the earliest, if not the earliest, home pregnancy tests came from Ancient Egypt. In 1350 BCE, women were advised to urinate on wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days; if the wheat sprouted, she was having a girl, and if the barley sprouted, a boy. If neither sprouted, she wasn’t pregnant. The most interesting thing about this test was that it actually worked: In 1963, a laboratory experimented with the wheat and barley test and found that, 70 percent of the time, the urine of pregnant women would cause the seeds to sprout, while the urine of non-pregnant women and men didn’t. The Ancient Egyptians knew everything.

2. The Onion Test

While the Ancient Egyptians were on to something with the wheat and barley test, they and the Ancient Greeks seem to have had a fuzzy understanding of anatomy. Both Egyptian medical papyri and Hippocrates, lauded as the father of medicine, suggested that a woman who suspected she might be pregnant insert an onion or other strong-smelling bulbous vegetable into her vagina overnight. If her breath smelled of onions the next morning, she wasn’t pregnant; this was based on the idea that her womb was open, and wafting the oniony scent up to her mouth like a wind tunnel. If she were pregnant, then the womb would be closed, so no wind tunnel.

3. The Latch Test

From The Distaff Gospels [PDF], a collection of women’s medical lore written in the late 15th century: “My friends, if you want to know if a woman is pregnant, you must ask her to pee in a basin and then put a latch or a key in it, but it is better to use a latch—leave this latch in the basin with the urine for three or four hours. Then throw the urine away and remove the latch. If you see the impression of the latch on the basin, be sure that the woman is pregnant. If not, she is not pregnant.” Say what now?

4. Piss Prophets

As bizarre as the “latch test” sounds, it still recognized that something in pregnant lady pee was different than non-pregnant lady or man pee, a fact that 16th century European “piss prophets” also recognized. These so-called experts claimed that they could determine whether or not a woman was with child by the color and characteristics of her urine. Some also mixed urine with wine and observed the results, a test that might have seen some success, given that alcohol can react to proteins present in pregnant lady pee. Of course, these piss prophets didn’t limit their wee-wee divination to pregnant ladies; they could also, by examining urine, intuit whether the urine’s owner was suffering from any illness or disease.

5. Look Into My Eyes

One 16th century physician, Jacques Guillemeau, claimed that you could tell by a woman’s eyes whether she was pregnant. Guillemeau, author of an influential treatise on ophthalmology, claimed that as early as 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.” That is likely not true, but he was right about one thing: Eyes can change during pregnancy, affecting your vision. This is why it’s not a good idea to get new contacts or prescription glasses during pregnancy.

6. I Saw the Sign

Early on in pregnancy, roughly six to eight weeks in, the cervix, labia and vagina can take on a dark bluish or purple-red hue, owing to the increased blood flow to the area. This remarkable indication of pregnancy was first noticed in 1836 by a French physician. It later became known as Chadwick’s sign, after James Read Chadwick, an obstetrics doctor who brought the discovery up at a meeting of the American Gynecological Society in 1886. But given that you had to look at the vagina to see the sign, and how prudish 19th century doctors tended to be, it’s unlikely that Chadwick’s sign was used very often as an indicator of pregnancy.

7. The Rabbit Test

Aside from observational tests such as Chadwick’s sign, pregnancy tests were still an unpleasant crapshoot up until the 20th century. Investigation into hormones, the big thing in science at the turn of the century, just made pregnancy testing unpleasant for a bunch of rabbits, mice, and rats.

In the 1920s, two German scientists, Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek, determined that there was a specific hormone present in the urine of pregnant women that seemed to be linked to ovary growth; we now know it as human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. They figured this out by injecting the urine of pregnant women into sexually immature rabbits, rats, and mice, which would induce ovarian development. Most of the time, the pregnant lady pee would produce bulging masses on the animals’ ovaries, a sure indication of the presence of hCG. So, the Rabbit Test was born.

According to a contemporary medical journal, it worked like this: A sample of urine was injected into a group of young female mice over a period of five days. On the fifth day, the mice were killed and autopsied to examine the state of their ovaries. If their reproductive bits looked excited, the test was positive. If you wanted your results in less than five days, they could simply use more mice.

This method ran through a lot of rabbits, mice, and rats; though the phrase “the rabbit died” popularly meant that the woman was pregnant, in actuality, all of the rabbits—and the mice and rats—died. Though doctors could look at the ovaries of the animal without killing it, that tended to be too much trouble.

8. The Frog Test

Though it worked on the same principle as the Rabbit Test, this one was actually a bit better—at least the animal remained alive at the end of it. In the late 1940s, scientists determined that when pregnant lady pee is injected into a live toad or frog, the unfortunate amphibian will produce eggs within 24 hours. The toad or frog lived to see another day and, usually, another test. The test was also called the “Bufo” test, after the particular species of toad usually used.

As horrible as the animal-killing tests sound, they were important steps on the road to first the blood test and then the home pregnancy test, which fundamentally changed the way women think about pregnancy and their own bodies. So let’s all say a quiet thank you to the rabbits, rats, mice, frogs, and onions who were sacrificed for the cause.

See Also: 12 Terrible Pieces of Advice for Pregnant Women

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Martin Wittfooth
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Art
The Cat Art Show Is Coming Back to Los Angeles in June
Martin Wittfooth
Martin Wittfooth

After dazzling cat and art lovers alike in 2014 and again in 2016, the Cat Art Show is ready to land in Los Angeles for a third time. The June exhibition, dubbed Cat Art Show 3: The Sequel Returns Again, will feature feline-centric works from such artists as Mark Ryden, Ellen von Unwerth, and Marion Peck.

Like past shows, this one will explore cats through a variety of themes and media. “The enigmatic feline has been a source of artistic inspiration for thousands of years,” the show's creator and curator Susan Michals said in a press release. “One moment they can be a best friend, the next, an antagonist. They are the perfect subject matter, and works of art, all by themselves.”

While some artists have chosen straightforward interpretations of the starring subject, others are using cats as a springboard into topics like gender, politics, and social media. The sculpture, paintings, and photographs on display will be available to purchase, with prices ranging from $300 to $150,000.

Over 9000 visitors are expected to stop into the Think Tank Gallery in Los Angeles during the show's run from June 14 to June 24. Tickets to the show normally cost $5, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting a cat charity, and admission will be free for everyone on Wednesday, June 20. Check out a few of the works below.

Man in Garfield mask holding cat.
Tiffany Sage

Painting of kitten.
Brandi Milne

Art work of cat in tree.
Kathy Taselitz

Painting of white cat.
Rose Freymuth-Frazier

A cat with no eyes.
Rich Hardcastle

Painting of a cat on a stool.
Vanessa Stockard

Sculpture of pink cat.
Scott Hove

Painting of cat.
Yael Hoenig
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Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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