One of the earliest written records of a urine-based pregnancy test can be found in an ancient Egyptian document. A papyrus described a test in which a woman who might be pregnant could urinate on wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days: “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.” Testing of this theory in 1963 found that 70 percent of the time, the urine of pregnant women did promote growth, while the urine of non-pregnant women and men did not. 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.
Middle Ages through the Seventeenth Century
Using visual aspects of urine to detect pregnancy became a popular method. In Europe, so-called “piss prophets” claimed to be able to diagnose many different conditions and diseases by the color of urine. In a 1552 text, pregnancy urine was described as: “clear pale lemon color leaning toward off-white, having a cloud on its surface.” Other tests included mixing wine with urine and observing the results. Indeed, alcohol reacts with certain proteins in urine, so this may have had a moderate success rate.
Various theories abounded, such as the possibility that pregnancy urine contained certain identifiable crystals or bacteria. Scientists did not know enough about pregnancy to develop a reliable test. However, for sexually active women, the best method for diagnosing pregnancy remained careful observation of their own physical signs and symptoms (such as morning sickness).
Many physicians began to describe the workings of chemicals in the body, suggesting that “internal secretions” by certain organs were crucial to an understanding of human biology. Ernest Starling named these chemical messengers “hormones.”
American public health advocates started to encourage women to see their doctors as soon as possible after pregnancy was suspected. Prenatal care was found to improve the health of both infants and mothers, even though most women would not see a doctor or midwife until well into the pregnancy.
Take from history