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Pregnancy Testing: A History Through the Ages

Pregnancy Testing History
Today, you’re going on a journey throughout history. The history of pregnancy tests through the ages. Before women peed on a stick to learn their fates, pregnant women urinated on a variety of other things that are quite humorous – including peeing on wheat and barley seeds.

The history of the pregnancy test is quite interesting and it’s colored in old wives’ tale (not just fun old wives tales for gender prediction), superstition, myths, and pseudo-science. For as long as women have been giving birth, there have been pregnancy testing.

Ancient Egypt: Urinating on a Seed of Barley

Around 1350 BCE, an ancient Egyptian document recorded an early method of pregnancy test. To figure out if they were pregnant or not, a potential mom-to-be would urinate on wheat or barley seeds over the course of a few days. If neither wheat nor barley grew, she wasn’t pregnant. If the barley grew, this meant she was carrying a male baby. If wheat sprouted from the seeds, this was a sign that it was a female child.

Doesn’t peeing on a stick and waiting a few minutes sound so much better than waiting days?

And before you laugh at how ridiculous this early method of pregnancy testing sounds, scientists in the 1960s found some validity to this ancient Egyptian practice. Apparently, researchers tried this peeing on barley and wheat seeds. They found that the urine of pregnant women did promote growth (due to the elevated estrogen levels) in 70 percent of the time, while the urine of men and non-pregnant women didn’t cause the wheat or barley to grow at all. Cool, huh?

Middle Ages through the 17th Century: “Piss Prophets”

In Europe, from the Middle Ages until the seventeenth century, there were so-called “piss prophets” who claimed to be able to detect pregnancy with the color of a woman’s urine. Apparently, these men claimed that pregnancy urine was “clear pale lemon color leaning toward off-white, having a cloud on its surface.”

The piss prophets also mixed wine with urine to observe the results. This is similar to some pregnant women today peeing and combining their urine with Drano to detect whether they’re having a boy or a girl. (Strange!)

Rabbit Pregnancy Test in the 1920s and 1930s

In the twentieth century, science had advanced to the point where researchers began to recognize a hormone that was found only in expectant mothers. They called this hormone, hCG. In order to identify hCG, scientists developed special tests (called bioassays) using live animals. In 1928, German scientists developed the first bioassay pregnancy test, which identified hCG in the urine of pregnant women.

To test for pregnancy, a possibly pregnant woman’s urine was injected into a young mouse or rat. When the woman was pregnant, the rat went into heat, even though it was immature. Later on, another scientist replaced these rats with rabbits. This is what’s now called “Rabbit pregnancy testing.”

The scientist, Maurice H. Friedman, would inject a woman’s urine in the ear veins of a female rabbit. If hCG was present in the urine (i.e. the woman was pregnant), the rabbit would ovulate within two days (48 hours). Sadly, the only way to tell whether or not ovulation occurred was to kill the rabbits to look at its ovaries.

These tests would be very unethical today.

First Home Pregnancy Tests – 1970s

The first home pregnancy test wasn’t available until around 1977 or 1978, and it was available for $10. It was a lengthy and complex process. The woman had to mix her urine in a test tube with sheep’s red blood cells. She had to wait hours for the results to appear. Back in those days, accuracy was a problem, and many women received false negative results.

Today, home pregnancy tests can give you a result within minutes. The science of pregnancy testing has come a LONG way!

If you want to learn more, check out the Office of NIH History and their Timeline of Pregnancy Testing.

My Recommendations for Accurate Home Pregnancy Tests

For anyone who is looking for a reliable and accurate home pregnancy test, please head over to my Pregnancy and Baby Store, where I’ve selected my favorite home pregnancy tests.

About the author: DP Nguyen is founder and editor of Hip Chick’s Guide to PMS, Pregnancy and Babies. She’s an expert pregnancy and women’s health blogger. She is NOT a medical doctor and does NOT offer medical advice. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Asha October 16, 2013, 1:58 pm

    Testing on animals still occurs today and the methods are extremely cruel & unnecessary.even most cosmetics are tested on animals especially by the popular brands.
    I have a pet rabbit & he peed on me when I was in the early stages of pregnancy, have you heard of that before?

  • Nicole April 28, 2011, 1:46 pm

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing that!!!

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