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Medicine | ESOTERICA MEDICA

Barley, beer and a thin blue line

Today, pregnancy tests come in a box. In earlier times, you'd consult the urine prophet, or a frog.

March 19, 2007|Elena Conis | Special to The Times

Honey, barley, beer, dates, toads, rabbit ears, rats and mice: No, it's not a list of ingredients for a witches brew but a short-list of the many items that have been employed through the ages to help women answer a burning question: Am I pregnant?

The ancients devised endless creative ways to diagnose pregnancy. More than a thousand years ago in Greece, honey water and vaginal suppositories made of onions were used. If the sweet water caused cramps and bloating, or if the suppository led to onion-tinged morning breath, a baby was on the way.

In ancient Egypt, a woman was given beer and dates until she vomited. The more vomiting, the thinking went, the more likely she was to be pregnant.

The Egyptians ultimately identified urine as the place to look to confirm a pregnancy. According to an ancient papyrus, a woman wondering whether she was pregnant would urinate on a pile of wheat and barley. If the barley sprouted after a few days, she was carrying a boy; if wheat sprouted, it meant a girl. No sprouts, no pregnancy.

When tested by scientists in 1963, this method could accurately predict a woman's pregnancy an impressive 70% of the time (it wasn't too useful in predicting gender). The key factor: the high level of estrogen in pregnant women's urine.

The so-called urine prophets of the Middle Ages also assessed a woman's urine: If it was "pale lemon" in color with cloudiness on the surface, she was expecting. In later centuries, doctors looked for crystals or germs in the urine, or mixed it with milk or wine and noted whether it floated or sank.

But in the end, no method was as reliable as the telltale signs of missed periods, morning sickness and a growing belly -- until, that is, the 20th century. The 1890s discovery of human hormones led to a gradual revolution in pregnancy testing.

Before today's familiar take-home sticks with their thin blue lines hit the market, the modern, hormone-based test involved rabbits, rodents and frogs.

In the 1920s, scientists discovered a hormone found exclusively in pregnant women: human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG. Two German scientists, Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek, discovered that when a pregnant woman's urine was injected into young mice or rats, the hCG and other hormones in the urine caused the rodents to go into heat within a few days.

The A-Z test, as Aschheim and Zondek's method was called, evolved later into a rabbit test then a frog test, both with the same underpinning: If injecting a woman's urine caused rabbit or frog to ovulate, the woman was pregnant.

These tests, of course, involved taking urine to the doctor and waiting for the results -- often for days. It wasn't until the late 1970s that women could take a quick and reliable pregnancy test at home. The first test kits came with a vial of red blood cells from sheep and a veritable chemistry set of equipment.

Dozens of simpler home pregnancy tests, all sans sheep cells, are sold today, and nearly 1 in 3 women has used one. They're pricier than wheat and barley, it's true, but they don't take days to produce results or require a trip to the prophet -- or a doctor.

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