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'Meeting of Mary and Elisabeth’ by Marx Reichlich. (Deriv.)

Bizarre Methods of Baby Detection: A Short History of the Pregnancy Test


From the dawn of time, people have been trying to figure out ways to detect early pregnancy before physical signs begin to show. Whilst you may be familiar with the hCG pregnancy strip test that is commonly used today, the history of the pregnancy test is a rather fascinating one. Over the ages, various cultures have developed their own methods of determining if a woman was pregnant, some of which may seem quite bizarre to modern readers.

Sprouting Grains told Ancient Egyptians of Pregnancy

The oldest known pregnancy tests can be traced to the ancient Egyptian civilization. This test is described, in fragments, in the Carlsberg Papyrus, and also more completely in the Berlin Papyrus (known also as the Brugsch Papyrus). In these medical texts, which date to the New Kingdom, it is mentioned that in order to ascertain if a woman is pregnant, she should urinate separately on a pile of barley and wheat grains.

Ancient Egyptian woman urinated on barley (top) (Sanjay Acharya/CC BY SA 4.0) and wheat (bottom) (Mark Nesbitt/CC BY SA 4.0) grains to detect pregnancy.

Ancient Egyptian woman urinated on barley (top) (Sanjay Acharya/ CC BY SA 4.0 ) and wheat (bottom) (Mark Nesbitt/ CC BY SA 4.0 ) grains to detect pregnancy.

If neither of the grains germinate, then the woman is not pregnant. If the barley germinates, then the woman is pregnant with a male child. Conversely, the germination of the wheat is an indication that the woman is carrying a female child.

A laboratory experiment conducted in 1963 shows that there may be some truth in the ancient Egyptian pregnancy test after all. It seems that 70% of the time the urine of pregnant women caused the grains to sprout. On the other hand, the urine of both non-pregnant women and men did not cause the grains to germinate.

Egyptian Fellah woman with her child, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, 1872. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Egyptian Fellah woman with her child, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, 1872. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Ancient Greeks Preferred Onions or Honey

The ancient Greeks had some rather more unusual pregnancy tests at their disposal. One of these, for example, is the insertion of an onion into a woman’s vagina overnight. If the woman were not pregnant, her breath would smell of onions the next morning.

The rationale for this test was the belief that a non-pregnant woman’s womb was ‘unobstructed’, and therefore would allow the scent of the onion to travel up to her mouth. Conversely, the womb of a pregnant woman was ‘sealed’, and therefore inhibiting the scent from travelling upwards. A variation of this involved the application of perfumed linen to the genitals.

A modern engraving of Agnodice, an ancient Greek midwife and obstetrician, who according to legend disguised herself as a man in order to practice as a doctor. (Public Domain)

A modern engraving of Agnodice, an ancient Greek midwife and obstetrician, who according to legend disguised herself as a man in order to practice as a doctor. ( Public Domain )

Another test, as suggested by Hippocrates, was for a woman to drink a mixture of honey and water before bedtime. If the woman experienced bloating and cramps during the night, she was pregnant.

Piss Prophets and the Medieval Pregnancy Test

It may be fair to say that pregnancy tests became even more varied, and perhaps even slightly more bizarre, during the Middle Ages. For example, it was during this period that the so-called ‘piss prophets’ arrived on the scene. These were people who claimed that they were able to tell if a woman was pregnant just by observing her urine. This was achieved by resorting to a popular method of urine examination known as uroscopy.

A Medieval urine wheel. (OnlineRover)

A Medieval urine wheel. ( OnlineRover)

Apart this procedure, medieval physicians were also using other forms of urine-based pregnancy tests. One of these involved placing a needle into a woman’s urine. If the woman was pregnant, it would rust red or black.

Another involved mixing the urine with wine. As the alcohol reacted with some of the proteins found in a pregnant woman’s urine, this test may have actually had some success in confirming a pregnancy.

‘Portrait of a Woman’ (1505-1506) by Raphael. (Public Domain)

‘Portrait of a Woman’ (1505-1506) by Raphael. ( Public Domain )

Hormones and Modern Pregnancy Testing

It was only during the first half of the 20th century that the human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone that serves as a pregnancy marker, was identified. This hormone is found in the urine of pregnant women, and it was through animal testing that hCG was found to be an indicator of pregnancy.

In such experiments, urine from a woman was injected into an immature female mouse / rat / rabbit. The animal would then be killed and dissected, so that its ovaries may be observed. If the urine belonged to a pregnant woman, the hCG would cause the animal to go into heat, which is supposed to have a visible effect on its ovaries. Such tests, however, were not very accurate, as the hCG level had to be high enough to cause these changes.

Finally, modern pregnancy tests began being developed during the 1960s, and by the late 1970s, pregnancy test kits began to be sold in the USA. These are said to be much easier to use and have provided accurate results.

A modern pregnancy test indicating the woman is pregnant. (Nabokov/CC BY SA 3.0)

A modern pregnancy test indicating the woman is pregnant. (Nabokov/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Top Image: ‘Meeting of Mary and Elisabeth’ by Marx Reichlich. (Deriv.) Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren


Fairfax Media, 2018. The weird and wonderful history of the pregnancy test. [Online]
Available at: http://www.essentialbaby.com.au/conception/trying-to-conceive/the-weird-and-wonderful-history-of-the-pregnancy-test-20130929-2umte

Fairhaven Health, 2018. The History of the Pregnancy Test from Rabbit Tests to Websites. [Online]
Available at: https://www.early-pregnancy-tests.com/history

Inglis-Arkell, E., 2012. The Bizarre History of Pregnancy Tests. [Online]
Available at: https://io9.gizmodo.com/5878715/the-bizarre-history-of-pregnancy-tests

McRobbie, L. R., 2016. 8 Historical Methods of Detecting Pregnancy. [Online]
Available at: http://mentalfloss.com/article/48655/8-historical-methods-detecting-pregnancy

Romm, C., 2015. Before There Were Home Pregnancy Tests. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-home-pregnancy-test/396077/

www.womens-health.co.uk, 2018. A Short History of Pregnancy Tests. [Online]
Available at: http://www.womens-health.co.uk/history-of-pregnancy-tests.html

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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