NL 2005/12

Pregnancy tests





Dear friends of the Museum of Contraception and Abortion,

"long time no see" – since we have been more than busy in building up our new museum we didn’t send any newsletters for quite a while! But because our work has progressed nicely the tradition of our regular newsletters can be renewed.

Read here juicy treats regarding pregnancy tests: Wheat, beer and frogs

"Frequently signs of pregnancy are vague or so difficult to understand that women are mistakingly seen as pregnant. In other cases pregnancy is recognised very late. Not only midwives and women themselves were mistaken, even doctors knew very little on physical signs till the 18th century."

Read more in: Jacques Gélis: Die Geburt – Volksglaube, Rituale und Praktiken von 1500 bis 1900 (Birth – popular belief, rituals and practices, 1500 – 1900)

Nowadays it’s quick and easy to learn whether or not one is pregnant. An urine test from the pharmacist’s clarifies this question even shortly before the expected monthly bleeding. Chemistry does the job.

Up till the 1970s a frog was "State of the Art". This biological indicator worked nearly as precisely as today’s testkits do – but much slower and more laborious. Its developer Carlos Galli Mainini gave a shot containing a few milliliters of the potentially pregnant woman’s urine or serum into the dorsal lymph vessel or under the skin. If the pregnancy proved true the frog himself produced sperm within 3 hours. The animal had no pain whatsoever and could do the trick over and over after a few weeks.

Read more in: Semana Medica 64, 337, March 1947 und Acta Obst. Gyn. Scand. Vol. 30, 3, 308-314, 1950.

Even as shrewd detectives we could not track down any movies or photographs showing this test of great historical importance. But we were successful in recording an interview with a contemporary witness which can be watched by future visitors of the museum.

Biological test kits use the fact that the pregnancy hormone hCG (humane Chorion-Gonadotropin)
closely resembles the Luteinizing Hormone LH, which is brain’s tool for controlling ovulation and sperm production respectively. In case of pregnancy a large amount of hCG can be detected in urine. Acting as an overstimulation with LH it produces the described reactions in animals.

Production of Pregnancy Hormone (hCG or ß-hCG, humane Chorion Gonadotropin) starts at day 4 after fertilisation, initially from the fertilised egg, subsequent from the placenta. As late as in 1953 a classic textbook of laboratory diagnostics summs up the following pregnancy tests, then very common and all of them using urine or serum: Besides the frog test it was Aschheim-Zondek-Reaction on mice, unfortunately very slow (72-100 hours), furthermore the mice had to be killed. Friedmann-Test (24-48 hours, working with virgin rabbits, reusable after 4 weeks), Hogben-Test (6-24 hours, frogs, reusable after 4 weeks), Zondek-Sulman-Black-Test (2-8 hours, rats had to be killed).

Disappointingly it proved unspecific and unreliable to detect pregnancy using agglutination reaction of dysentery germs (Bacterium dysenteria Flexner) or cholera vibrions.
Read more in: Laboratoriumsdiagnostik, Urban & Schwarzenberg publishers, 1953

In 1951 Doctor Hasenbein (literally: hare’s leg) from Kiel University presented a pregnancy test using earthworms. Knowledge has not been handed down why this test has not been developed any further, considering its good results of 90 percent plus the well known modesty of earthworms.
Read more in: Arch. Gyn., 181, 15-28 (1951)

In France the so called "garlic test" was in use well into the 18th century: When going to bed a woman who wanted to know about a possible pregnancy, put a clove of garlic into her vagina. If her breath shows the typical smell next morning she cannot be pregnant because the presence of an embryo prohibits such a diffusion through her body. In contrast clear breath proves fertilisation.
Such a vision was quite convincing, since due to their form cloves of garlic were understood as symbol of a cuddled fetus.

Some hints regarding pregnancy can be drawn from the lady’s eyes: "In the second month" wrote French accoucheur Jacques Guillemeau, "women show lacklustre caved-in eyes with tiny pupils, weak and droopy eyelids, and the tiny vessels in the corners of the eye are thicker and more swollen than usual." Furthermore her glances change: "If there is no other hint on a woman’s pregnancy, it’s her eyes." Eyes are pregnancy’s mirror.

Well-known accoucheur Louise Bourgeois explained in 1626: "The midwife can cautiously feel around, whether the womb is like a chicken’s backside, too tightly closed to insert a grain of wheat."
Read more in: Jacques Gélis: Die Geburt – Volksglaube, Rituale und Praktiken von 1500 bis 1900 (Birth – popular belief, rituals and practices, 1500 – 1900)

In old Egypt potentially pregnant women had to eat a mash of beer and dates. Vomitting was seen as proof of pregnancy. Turning away from strong smells and a weak feeling from the stomach are even nowadays seen as signs of a pregnancy. For another egyptian test grains of wheat or barley were spilled with the potentially pregnant woman’s urine: Barley growing well meant a son, wheat growing well predicted a daughter. Neither nor meant the lady was not pregnant. Scientists in 1963 repeating this test assembly had 70 percent hits.
Read more in: Europ. J. Obst. Gyn. Repr. Biol. 123 (2005) 3-8

In 1960 the first immunological test kits using biochemical methods for detecting pregnancy hormone hCG were in use, but gave wrong results frequently because of poor precision. So women had to wait for their hCG level high enough for a clear-cut result which meant passing another 2 weeks after the expected time of the monthly bleeding.

Not before 1975 the eminent break through of monoclonal antibodies allowed an early and fast pregnancy test, discriminating between hCG and pituitary hormone LH. Finally there was no more need for using living animals for an early pregnancy detection.

One of the newly founded Museum of Contraception and Abortion’s goals is to document the history of pregnancy tests. For this reason we ask all our readers and friends for cooperation by searching documents, images, announcements, ads, lab reports, articles, diaries etc. regarding the pregnancy test with frogs/toads, which was widely common and reliable till the 1970s.

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With a number of interesting new objects having already been donated, we are still happy to get interesting objects for the planned Museum for Contraception and Abortion, such as films, posters, leaflets, books, documents, statistics, devices and instruments for contraception, for pregnancy-testing and for abortion - from past and present times, from locally and elsewhere.

You can also help us by sponsoring the purchase of objects, which otherwise we would not be able to finance.


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A first presentation of our ever-growing museum can be seen following the links from our website at www.contraceptive-museum.org or www.verhuetungsmuseum.at. Furthermore a guided tour is given through the future website which is still under construction.

For the time being, we can only be contacted personally via phone or email:

Museum of Contraception and Abortion
phone: +43 699 178 178 04 (Susanne Krejsa PhD)
+43 699 159 731 90 (Christian Fiala MD PhD)
fax: +43 1 892 25 81
email: mailto:verhuetung@aon.at



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