The weird and wonderful history of the pregnancy test

Jan Steen's 'The Doctor's Visit', showing a ribbon pregnancy test from the mid-1600s.
Jan Steen's 'The Doctor's Visit', showing a ribbon pregnancy test from the mid-1600s. 

From Ancient Egyptian agricultural trials to Hippocrates' honey tests, the 'Piss Prophets' of the Middle Ages through to today's digital versions, pregnancy tests have come a very long way. Take a walk through history to learn what women have anxiously sat through in order to find out if they're expecting or not.  

Ancient Egyptian tests: wheat and barley, mum’s milk, and beer 

Archaeologists have found a hieroglyphic document dating back to 1350BC which outlines a basic pregnancy test: it says that women who think they’re expecting should urinate on wheat and barley whole grains/seeds. According to the Berlin Medical Papyrus, “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all.” It turns out that the gender test wasn’t very accurate, but a test has since shown that the urine of pregnant women does make seeds grow quicker.

Another test from the same translation suggests that the woman drinks breast milk from a mum who has a son – and if she vomits, the pregnancy is confirmed. 

Yet another ancient Egyptian test was for the woman to sit on a mashed mixture of beer and dates. Again, if she vomited, she was pregnant.

It does make you wonder … perhaps all this vomiting was actually one of the more common early signs of pregnancy – morning sickness?

Ancient Greece’s honey test

Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physician (460-370 BC), believed that pregnancy could be revealed through a bedtime drink.  He recommended that if a woman missed her period, she should drink a special drink made from honey; if she had bloating and cramps in the night, it meant she was pregnant.

Middle ages: ‘Piss prophets’

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The Middle Ages saw the rise of what were called ‘Piss Prophets’, people who looked at the urine of women who thought they might be pregnant.

In 1552, a text described the urine of pregnant women as being a “clear pale lemon colour leaning toward off-white, having a cloud on its surface.”

Others mixed wine with urine – not to drink, just to observe. As alcohol can react with the proteins found in urine, this test may have actually been accurate if conducted by someone who knew what to look for.

Another urine-based test, this one from the 15th century, saw women who thought they were pregnant peeing on a latch or key in a basin. After waiting three to four hours, those present checked if the latch or key left an impression on the bottom of the basin – if it did, she was pregnant. 

Yet another test had women urinating on a needle; if it then rusted red or black, the test was positive.

1500s: the eye test

Jacques Guillemeau, a 16th century physician, claimed that you could tell a woman was pregnant by looking at her eyes, writing, “A pregnant woman gets deep-set eyes with small pupils, drooping lids and swollen little veins in the corner of the eyes.”

The ribbon test of the 17th century

The urine-based tests of the earlier years were still popular in the 1600s, but there was a new twist. As shown by Jan Steen’s mid-1600s painting, ‘The Doctor’s Visit’, women were asked to urinate into a pot, into which a ribbon was dipped. She was then asked to smell the ribbon, and if it made her gag or feel sick it was presumed she was pregnant.

Early 1900s: urine, rodents and rabbits

In 1928, German scientists Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek invented the first test which identified the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in the blood of the mum-to-be. In their test, the woman’s urine was injected into an immature rat or mouse; if she was pregnant, the animal’s ovaries would show that the rodent had gone into heat, in spite of being immature.

There were a few problems with this method, though: the animal had to die in order for the scientists to check the state of its ovaries, it cost a lot and took days for an answer, and the tests weren’t very reliable anyway.  

A similar test, using rabbits, came next. At the time, women would use the phrase “the rabbit died” as a euphemism for receiving a positive result.

The new way

By the 1970s, science had advanced enough so that women could collect a urine sample at home, then take it to the doctor or send it to a lab in the mail. The testing required test tubes and the mixing of chemicals, so they still couldn’t perform the tests themselves.

This finally all changed with the first home pregnancy test, sold in American stores in 1977 for $10. It was made up of a vial of purified water, a test tube, an angled mirror, and red blood cells from a sheep. The solution had to be stored in a fridge for a few hours, and the tests still returned a large amount of false negatives, but the element of privacy made them far more popular and convenient than the other options of the time.   

Eventually, in 1988, Unilever produced the first “one step” test, Clearblue Easy. This stick, which tests the hCG levels in a woman’s urine, is the style most associate with pregnancy tests today. And 15 years later came the latest innovation: instead of a thin blue line to show pregnancy, a digital screen shows a positive result.

Of course, the best bet is to see a doctor – but if you’re feeling a little nostalgic for days gone by, grab those wheat and barley seeds and load up on water …