NL 2007/08

Hermann Knaus (1892-1970 - Detective of the Fertile Days

By the end of the 1920's the fertile and infertile days of the female cycle were understood by both the Austrian Herman Knaus (1892-1970) and the Japanese Kyusaku Ogino (1882-1975) almost simultaneously but independently of one another. We already informed you about Mr. Ogino in our Newsletter 2005/01 which may be found on our homepage.

The calculation of fertile and infertile days ("Counting days") became popular quickly although its safe use is subject to two important conditions. First, the relevant lady's cycle must be very regular without shifts due to stress, travelling and other influences. Secondly, human sexuality would need to be controllable in order to occur only on the relatively few "safe" days.

Therefore, and by virtue of Vatican approval, the Knaus-Ogino method became commonly known as "Catholics' roulette" or "Roman roulette". It took a backseat with the introduction of "the pill" and other safe contraceptive methods. However, even today it is employed by cycle computers for contraception and couples wanting a child ("Babycomputer" and "Ladycomputer").
Herman Knaus made three important findings concerning:
o the female egg's ability to become fertilized;
o the male sperm's ability to fertilize; and
o the non-varying period between ovulation and subsequent menstruation.

Knaus' observation that the female egg is fertilizable for only a few hours was accepted immediately. He wrote that his colleagues in the scientific community accepted his theory without requiring any further evidence. That male sperm could fertilize for no longer than 5 days was initially fiercely rejected by the same scientific community and required ten years of further discussion and evidence. We can only speculate as to why the information regarding the sperm's "finiteness" led to such reactions. Possibly this was due to emotional touchiness of a then male dominated medical field.

Knaus' third finding explained the non-varying period between ovulation and subsequent menstruation. Before him, there were widely divergent opinions. Some scientists maintained, for example, that women were fertile every day of their cycles. Since Knaus' doctrine changed ethical and ideological positions, decades were necessary before wide approval. Furthermore, Knaus' personality was polarizing, as clearly shown by the following quote from his Berlin collegue in 1943: "He is brilliant by both his scientific achievements and surgical results which no other gynaecological surgeon was able to obtain... He enjoys international standing. But in o n e question, namely the only possible term of conception, he is obstinate and has antagonized a great number of people through his crude rejection of every divergent view.”

Who was Herman Knaus? Born in 1892 into a well-off middle-class family of tradesmen in Austrian district of Carinthia, he was a lifelong avid mountaineer, skier and rider. His studies of medicine in Graz and Innsbruck were interrupted by WW1. Knaus enjoyed his professor's support and in 1924 he used a Rockefeller research grant for a term with Professor A.J. Clark in London where he was introduced to experimental work with animal uterine muscles. Back at Universitäts-Frauenklinik Graz, on January 31, 1927, Knaus made an important discovery. "On this day, I saw for the first time an unknown function of the yellow body in a pregnant rabbit's uterus, viz to eliminate the muscle's sensitivity to pituitrine in order to immobilize this and so allow the undisturbed development of the egg...“ This reaction can be observed in the rabbit exactly 22 hours after ovulation.

In May 1928, at Universitäts-Frauenklinik Berlin, Knaus could observe under X-ray the forceful movements of the human uterus, while at other times these same muscles were very flabby and inactive. Encouraged by these observations he started at Graz University to graphically log human uterus’ movements. He learned that the same relaxing and flagging effects from the yellow body towards the muscle can be observed in the human uterus. This effect starts approximately 12 days prior to the next menstruation.

In order to determine the exact date of ovulation, Knaus asked his patients for notes on their menstruation. From these he learned that there are exactly 48 hours between the start of yellow body’s activities and ovulation. From there he could calculate 14 days between ovulation and next menstruation due to the regularity of yellow body’s growing and fading away as soon as the egg has burst.

In 1929, Knaus presented his new findings at a gynaecologists’ conference in Leipzig. In 1934, he published his menstruation diary and recommended it to every female for the profit of knowing her own cycle.

With the advent of national socialism, contraception quickly became an unwanted topic, later even a forbidden issue. It took some time till it was realized that Knaus’ doctrine not only helped to find one’s infertile but the fertile days as well. The following quote is from 1942: „Only now we have started to use Knaus’ doctrine of relatively infertile days since we saw that it also helps us to calculate the period of relatively fertility. Today it seems very adequate to make his doctrine widely known since there are not few marriages which thank him for their children.“

Hermann Knaus was not as widely honoured in Austria as he deserved, but still enjoyed an international reputation, was frequently invited for lectures and heavily praised. As a pious Catholic, his most precious honour was approval of his method by Pope Pius XII. as the sole contraception method tolerated by the church.

Knaus also dealt with the pill but rejected it strongly - on medical as well as moral grounds. His former assistant Heinz Braitenberg-Zenoberg wrote: „While more and more gynaecologists prescribed the pill during the last years, and many respectable and even more less respectable papers described and praised it, Knaus was one of its first opponents. The recent Pope had asked Knaus for his expertise ... and there is no doubt that Knaus was leading in rejecting it.“ Hermann Knaus died at the age of 78 in Graz. In his last hours he was visited by the apostolic nuntius in Austria presenting him the Pope’s blessings.
A folder ‘Hermann Knaus – Detective of the Fertile Days (1892-1970) is sold at the museum for Euros 1.-.

Museum of Contraception and Abortion
Mariahilfer Guertel 37/1. floor, A-1150 Wien
Wednesday through Sunday, 2PM to 6PM, phone +43 699 178 178 04, fax: +43 1 892 25 81