Barley, Bunnies, And Blue Lines: The History (And Future) Of Pregnancy Tests

Over the course of history, women have had plenty of interesting ways to find out their plans, say, nine months down the line.

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Since starting my family, I’ve taken at least a dozen pregnancy tests. It’s always such a rush of emotions: a dose of excitement, a little fear, and lots of anticipation. My hands usually shake as I open the package, review the instructions, pee…and then wait. Is there a new little life forming inside my womb? Will I see two lines or one? With the line be too faint to read? Am I testing too early? Do these dollar store pregnancy tests really work? They do work, I can assure you, and I’m so happy my midwife encouraged me to stop spending more than necessary for at-home pregnancy tests! In the 21st century, it’s easy to determine whether or not you’re pregnant. But just two generations ago, things weren’t as predictable. In the 1940s, when my grandmother was first expecting, there were no tests she could take at home. It took a visit to the doctor and lots of waiting to determine if there was a bun in the oven. It wasn’t until 1976 that the first FDA approved at-home pregnancy test, called e.p.t., short for “Early Pregnancy Test” and later “Error Proof Test.” In 1977, it hit the market. “For your $10,” read a 1978 article in the magazine Mademoiselle, “you get pre-measured ingredients consisting of a vial of purified water, a test tube containing, among other things, sheep red blood cells…as well as a medicine dropper and clear plastic support for the test tube, with an angled mirror at the bottom.” That test took two hours to produce results. Considering my complaints about the two minutes I’ve had to wait for my own fate…well, let’s just say that I’m thrilled I didn’t start taking pregnancy tests until 2010! Nonetheless, women immediately appreciated the convenience of at-home testing. “By 1978 home testing was a $40 million market,” The New York Times reports, and that number is expected to exceed $1 billion by 2020, said the co-inventor of Lia, “the first flushable, biodegradable home pregnancy test.” More on Lia later. Seeing that women have been suspecting pregnancy and having babies since the beginning of human history, there were plenty of other ways to confirm—or try to confirm—pregnancy before home testing became available. Some realistic, others…well, read on.

The First Urine Test

The Egyptians were the first to discover a somewhat accurate way to determine pregnancy around 1350 BCE, according to the NIH report. It was similar to modern days tests in the fact that urine was tested, but in the Egyptians’ case, the wondering woman would urinate on a barley and wheat seeds over the course of a few days. If the seeds grew, she was expecting. If they did not, she was not. This theory was tested in 1963, and scientists found it to have a surprising level of accuracy when it came to pregnancy: 70 percent. “Scholars have identified this as perhaps the first test to detect a unique substance in the urine of pregnant women, and have speculated that elevated levels of estrogens in pregnant women’s urine may have been the key to its success,” wrote the National Institute of Health’s office of history.

French Persuasian

Jacques Guillemeau, a 16th century surgeon, believed that a woman’s eyes were the tip-off for pregnancy. In Child-birth; Or, The Happy Delivery of Women, he wrote that a pregnant woman’s eyes become deep-set with small pupils. They would also have droopy eyelids and swollen veins in the corners. Well, it turns out none of Guillemeau’s observations are indicative of a bun in the oven, though eyesight does often change during pregnancy. Jump ahead to the 19th century, and another French physician, James Read Chadwick, observed that a woman’s cervix, labia, and vagina would significantly darken or turn a blue color hue around the eighth week of pregnancy. This sign is accurate, but was an unlikely test due to the modesty of the times. Still, the method has been historically noted and today is often called the Chadwick’s sign.

A Hop and a Prayer

“When I started medical school, we literally had to wait for the rabbit to die to see if someone was pregnant,” recalled Mary Jane Minkin, MD, in a previous interview with HealthyWay. Starting in the 1930s and lasting into the ’70s, a somewhat barbaric test was done where a woman’s urine was injected into the veins of a live, female rabbit. If the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) was present in the urine, the rabbit would ovulate and confirm that the woman was pregnant. “Unfortunately, this method came at a tremendous cost to the rabbits—their lives!” wrote Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio for HealthyWay. “The rabbit’s ovaries couldn’t be seen without an autopsy or surgery to remove the ovaries; the latter was typically deemed a waste of effort.” A similar test could be done with African clawed toad, but, since toads externally ovulate through spawning, the test didn’t cost them their lives. Rather, frogs were just observed to see if they would spawn within 24 hours of the injection.  

To Wait, Or To Test

The most basic and non-invasive way to determine pregnancy has always been to pay attention to symptoms. Pregnancy symptoms peak early in the first trimester, so if exact conception dates are not known, other signs surely tell the tale. Sunny Jun, MD of The Colorado Center of Reproductive Medicine San Francisco lists the following and signs that usually mean a baby is on board: missed period, swollen and tender breasts, increased fatigue, moodiness, nausea, food aversions or cravings, spotting, headaches, and light headedness. But those symptoms don’t always point to pregnancy. Hence, the interest in pregnancy tests: something more exact. Women have always craved answers about their bodies, then and most definitely now. Now, when a woman browses the aisles of the drugstore, she has countless options of at-home pregnancy tests. They all, in effect, do the same thing: evaluate the concentration of the hCG. If taken in the proper window, the tests are 99 percent accurate, according to the Mayo Clinic. “A urine or blood pregnancy test is checking for the beta subunit of the [hCG] hormone,” says Jun. “The urine test can detect as early as several days prior to the two weeks after ovulation. If done too early, it may come back as falsely negative.” For optimal accuracy, the Mayo Clinic recommends women take at-home tests one day to one week after their missed period. Blood tests are more accurate but require a visit to the doctor, whereas a urine test can be done at home…or in the bathroom of the store where the test was purchased, if time is of the essence!

What All Pregnancy Tests Have in Common

No matter the testing method—modern day or way back when—there are a number of commonalities when trying to find out if a woman is pregnant. First, is the analysis of urine. This is most common and most accurate, although as we’ve learned the accuracy wavered over time depending on the exact method. Second is the observation of physical changes. Accuracy varies greatly with this, but upon conception, a woman’s body begins to change inside and out. Eventually, whether through a test, calculated dates, or a growing belly bump, pregnancy becomes obvious.

What’s next?

It has been four decades since the at-home pregnancy test became available for regular consumers. Science and medical advances are made every day, and yet, for years, there have been no updates in the realm of pregnancy testing. Until now. In mid-2018, a new pregnancy test launches from Lia Diagnostics. Lia, as the test is being called, is 99 percent accurate and encompasses the same science as the tests that currently line drugstore shelves. But there is one important difference: Lia is flushable and therefore “better for the environment and more discrete for women,” according to Jun. Just like other at-home pregnancy tests, Lia assesses the level of hCG in a woman’s urine. Simply pee on the stick, lay it flat, and read the line(s) that appear. One line is negative, two lines, positive. Then, though, you can flush the test. That’s the game changer. All other pregnancy tests are plastic and must be thrown in the garbage. This is both bad for the environment and bad for the suspecting woman’s privacy. With a flushable test, not only can the test stay out of the landfill, the results can be kept private. A woman can choose to reveal her positive or negative test to whomever she chooses, whenever she chooses, without fear of the results being discovered in the waste bin. From the days of watching wheat and barley seeds grow, to the discreet, flushable hCG-reading devices on the horizon, pregnancy tests span a huge portion of human history. They show how far science has come. In coming years, advancements will surely be made in the rate of accuracy in detecting early pregnancy. Currently, the most sensitive test reads with a 79 percent accuracy at six days before a woman’s missed period. Perhaps one day it will be even earlier with an even higher rate of accuracy.

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