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12 Bizarre Facts About The History of Birth Control

Image Credit: Bryancalabro via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The quest to separate sex from baby-making is an ancient one. From drinking small amounts of poison to shoving dung, rock salt, or oil up the hoo-ha, ladies and gentlemen have been trying to get it on without the responsibility of bearing children for millennia. It’s only been in the last century or so that we’ve really gotten it right, developing modern drugs and implantable devices that can stop sperm from fertilizing an egg with precision and reliability. But the path to making it easy to choose when exactly to have a child (or not to have one at all) hasn’t always been a smooth one. Here are just a few surprising, disturbing, and downright bizarre facts from the history of human research into non-reproductive sex.

1. The Pill wasn’t the first oral contraceptive.

Long before hormonal pills were readily available to women of childbearing age, eating and drinking certain substances served as a rudimentary form of birth control (along with various other fascinating methods). The residents of Cyrene, a North African city-state in the Greek and Roman Empires, ate a plant called silphion (and harvested it to extinction). Some ancient women ate pomegranate seeds to prevent unwanted pregnancies—inspired by the legend of Persephone—or ingested pennyroyal, which is toxic in higher doses. Recent research has shown these techniques to be at least somewhat effective, though other ancient methods, like the Chinese practice of drinking mercury, were downright dangerous.

2. The Talmud OKs the use of contraceptive sponges.

The ancient Jewish text recommends using a sponge soaked in vinegar to block semen in a few select cases: if a girl is too young to bear children, or if a woman is already pregnant or nursing.

3. The idea for the IUD may have come from a camel.

Ancient Arab camel owners reportedly placed small stones in the uteruses of their animals to prevent pregnancy, though this is likely just a legend. However, animals have played a vital role in the development of intrauterine devices. In 1909, a Polish doctor named Richard Richter published the first paper on the successful use of an IUD created from the guts of a silkworm.

4. No IUD has been designed by a woman.

A Grafenberg IUD designed in the 1920s. Image Credit: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Though ancient reproductive medicine was generally a woman’s domain, practiced by midwives, gynecology eventually became a standardized medical practice under the domain of the medical establishment (largely dominated by men). Activists like Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger were instrumental in the fight for easily available birth control, but most of the people involved in developing modern birth control have been men. The IUD, which sits inside the uterus, has been designed by people without uteruses (which may be how some of the devices ended up looking like implantable shark teeth).

As an IUD designer told reporters Lucy Vernasco and Arikia Millikan in their excellent history of the IUD over on Vice:

"When I was in school, [women] were discriminated against. They weren’t accepted," said Dr. Jack Lippes, designer of the Lippes Loop, a once-prominent player in the progression of better, safer IUDs. He listed off all the men who’ve historically made the IUDs. "They’re all males, right."

5. Diaphragms were once known as “womb veils.”

In the late 1800s, American women had some access to early versions of the female condom. These diaphragms and cervical caps were sometimes called “womb veils” or even a “mechanical shield for ladies,” as historian Janet Farrell Brodie writes in her book Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America.

6. Birth control wasn’t legal for everyone until 1972.

While contraceptives like the Pill were available to married couples looking to plan their families, laws against distributing contraceptives to single people were still on the books until the 1970s. The U.S. Supreme Court finally brought birth control to the masses in Eisenstadt v. Baird, arguing that treating married and unmarried people differently violated the Equal Protection Clause. In the case, William Baird had been charged with a felony for giving Emko Vaginal Foam to a woman after a Boston University lecture on birth control.

7. An IUD can rip a sperm’s head off.

Database Center for Life Science (DBCLS) via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

IUDs work in a variety of different ways, mainly by making the uterus a terrible place for sperm. Copper can act as a spermicide, and non-hormonal copper IUDs have been known to rip sperm heads from tails. 

8. We’re still arguing about how an IUD works. 

While the IUD is one of the most effective contraceptives on the market, with an efficacy rate of 99 percent, scientists still aren’t precisely sure of the method through which it prevents pregnancy in some cases. The IUD largely hinders sperm mobility and function (see: ripping heads off), keeping the sperm from ever reaching the egg. However, if by chance a sperm does make it to the egg, the IUD thins the cervical mucus to keep the embryo from implanting in the uterus—which is why some lawmakers and craft stores argue (contrary to scientific research) that IUDs are a method of abortion.

9. The Pill’s active ingredient comes from a yam.

In the 1950s, a Mexico City-based company called Syntex synthesized progestin, the main hormone in birth control pills, from a wild Mexican yam called barbasco. Carl Djerassi, the chemist responsible for the breakthrough, is now heralded as one of the fathers of the Pill.

10. Condoms and tires have more in common than you thought.

Modern condoms wouldn’t be possible without Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber. Ancient incarnations were made with linen and animal intestines, and were typically aimed at reducing the risk of disease, rather than preventing pregnancy. Goodyear patented his method of shaping and strengthening rubber in 1844, and the first rubber condom was produced a decade later. Latex versions, however, weren't invented until 1920.

11. The Pill has a four-week cycle because of the Catholic Church.

John Rock, (far left) one of the inventors of the Pill, in 1948 Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution via

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Most birth control pills feature a three-week cycle of active pills followed by one week of placebo pills made of sugar. There’s no biological underpinning that dictates this cycle. Rather, it is the design of John Rock, a devout Catholic doctor who conducted the first human trials of the birth control pill, and biologist Gregory Pincus. Rock argued that the Pill was a “natural” form of contraception, using hormones that occur naturally in the female body almost like a pharmacological extension of the Catholic-endorsed rhythm method—and thus should be accepted by the Catholic Church. (Needless to say, his argument was unsuccessful.) In an era when birth control was still quite controversial—the Pill wouldn’t be legal for unmarried couples in all states until more than a decade after its 1960 approval by the FDA—the researchers speculated that making it seem like birth control wasn’t interfering with the natural menstrual cycle would make it more palatable to the public.

However, the period that women get during the placebo week isn’t even a real period—it’s a withdrawal response from discontinuing the hormones. It’s perfectly healthy to skip your period by continuing to take the active pills.

12. The first trials of the Pill in humans involved test subjects who couldn’t technically consent.

Starting in 1954, gynecologist John Rock and biologist Gregory Pincus began tests of synthetic oral progesterone, or birth control pills. While 50 of Rock’s infertility patients volunteered, the drug was also tested on 28 psychiatric patients at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts. At the time, anti-obscenity laws in Massachusetts prevented the researchers from putting out a public call for volunteers.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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