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Long before you could buy a pee-on-a-stick pregnancy test for $10 in any drugstore, pregnancy tests took a different form altogether.
Frogs. But let's back up just a smidge, well, a bit more than a smidge. Let's back up all the way to 1350 BCE, when the ancient Egyptians had already realized there was something special about pregnant-lady pee. Egyptian women wondering if they were pregnant were advised to pee on wheat and barley seeds. If the wheat sprouted, she was pregnant with a girl; if the barley sprouted, it was a boy. If nothing sprouted, she wasn't pregnant at all.
Weirdly, this theory um, bears some fruit -- as the NIH tells us, a 1963 test found that 70 percent of the time urine from a pregnant woman would cause the seeds to sprout, while the urine from men or non-pregnant women did not. Go figure.
Urine-related pregnancy tests continued to develop as researchers speculated that there was something different about pregnant lady pee, although they were unsure just what it was. In the meantime, "piss prophets" tried to divine pregnancy by examining urine's color, by mixing it with alcohol, or by other dubious means.
This 17th century painting by Jan Steen, "The Doctor's Visit," shows an early attempt at a pregnancy test -- a ribbon is dipped in the patient's urine and burned
Things took a leap forward in the 20th century, when scientists began to discover that chemicals regulated certain human bodily functions, including reproduction. In the 1920s, researchers identified human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone found in high concentrations in the urine of pregnant women.
Blammo! The pregnancy test race was on. In 1927, German researchers Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek dicovered that injecting the urine of a pregnant woman into a mouse or rat would send it into heat. Great test! Except that the rat or mouse would have to be killed, and dissected to see ovarian changes, since mice and rats don't flirt or put on lingerie when they're horny.
Later, rabbits replaced the doomed rats and mice; readers may have heard of the "rabbit test" in connection to pregnancy, or heard "the rabbit died" as a euphemism for "I'm pregnant." I implore you not to google "rabbit test," as you'll find just heartbreaking pictures of the poor rabbits.
This clip from "The Golden Girls" refers to a rabbit dying due to pregnancy
Crazily, using frogs, specifically Xenopus laevis, the African clawed frog, to test pregnancy instead of rats or rabbits was a step forward. Because frogs lay eggs instead of getting pregnant, scientists could inject the urine right into their legs, then check later for eggs in the tank. No need to kill the frog, though you could definitely argue that getting jabbed with urine and living alone in a tank isn't exactly a frog's idea of fun.
And ultimately, the frog may have extracted its vengeance on humankind -- so many Xenopus laevis were exported from Africa for pregnancy tests that some scientists believe the species is the source of a fungal disease that threatens the global amphibian population.
How's that for a last laugh? Maybe we should have stuck to barley seeds.
Image of xenopus laevis and The Doctor's Visit courtesy Wikimedia Commons
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