The history of pregnancy tests

The history of pregnancy tests Part 1: From peeing on wheat to “piss prophets”

Since the first at-home pregnancy test was patented in 1969, there have been major improvements when it comes to accuracy and convenience. Now, you can buy pregnancy tests at the store or, with the click of a button, get them delivered right to your door. (Of course, we prefer the latter ;) ) But reliable tests weren’t always available. The long history of pregnancy tests ranges from odd to shocking, and shows just how far we’ve come.  

It’s all in the pee.

Despite the strange methods used by our ancestors, they were right about one thing: urine is the key. During pregnancy, a fertilized egg turns into an embryo. This releases the hCG pregnancy hormone. “Since hormones are excreted into the urine after they’re done sending their signals,” the urine of a pregnant person contains hCG.

Although it’s impossible for ancient Egyptians to have known this, a 3,500-year-old text deciphered recently revealed their methodology. If you wanted to find out if you were pregnant, you would pee into a bag of wheat and barley. They believed this would not only determine if someone was pregnant, but would also reveal the baby’s sex. Sprouted grains equaled a pregnancy. “Barley for boys, wheat for girls,” Smithsonian Magazine explains. According to a study, it’s possible that the estrogen levels in a pregnant person’s urine is what caused the grains to sprout, however, this method was overall unreliable. The test was also inaccurate when it came to finding out the baby’s sex.

Seeing (and tasting) yellow.

You might have heard of psychics staring into a crystal ball or reading lines on your hands to see the future. But have you heard of “Piss Prophets”? Medical historian and author Dr. Lindsay Fitzharris says that in Medieval Times, “a pot of pee was a crucial diagnostic tool.” 

Physicians would study a patient’s urine—judging its colour, smelling it, and even tasting it. As this practice evolved by the 16th and 17th centuries, it eventually led to uromancy, using pee to tell the future. This included telling if a person was pregnant and divulging the sex of the baby. “They probably arrived at their diagnoses more from being excellent observers of the patient rather than of her urine,” explains an article in Clinical Chemistry. Other than seeing into the future, the prophets also ran odd tests by today’s standards. For example, they would put a needle in the collected pee of an expectant mother. If the needle turned black or red, that indicated a pregnancy.

Animal instincts.

Jump ahead to the 1920s and the methods might still be considered strange. Two German scientists, who discovered the hCG hormone in urine, injected mice with a pregnant person’s urine, causing “the mouse’s ovaries to grow and produce eggs.” Scientists also used rats and rabbits to inject, and later dissect, in order to study them. 

This method of injecting urine into small animals was used to determine pregnancy. In the 1950s, African Clawed Frogs were imported for such tests. But even after all that, “many of these tests were not reliable.” The practice was abandoned a couple decades later, when more accurate ways became available. 

So, how did we get from injecting mice to dipping a test strip into a cup? Finish the long journey that is the history of pregnancy tests in Part 2, where we’ll explore the role of antibodies, the arrival of the stick, and the at-home test.

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