Next time you think that it’s just too much of a bother to take a pill at the same time every day – well – read on!

Barrier methods of birth control: physical “something”, either chemical or mechanical, put in the vagina near the cervix to stop sperm from playing around with the egg. Barriers have been around for thousands of years, and have evolved over time.

I’m thankful for that.

One of the earliest recorded findings was a papyrus dating back to 1550 BC containing a “prescription” for a contraceptive pessary (like a diaphragm). Supposedly powerful enough to last for 1-3 years, the recipe called for tips of an acacia shrub and dates (hey – we have those in Phoenix!) ground together, mixed with cotton, then shaped with honey into a lump to fit into the vaginal cavity. (You won’t get pregnant, but you will get ants).

You know, folk medicine was around before modern medicine, and we learned from it and still use forms of the old stuff. Of interest – when acacia comes in contact with body heat and fluids, it ferments into lactic acid – an ingredient in modern spermicides (lactic acid is also good for your face and skin).
If acacia and dates were unattainable, or your camel ate the last one, other devices and recipes were also used. Aristotle devised a list of oil of cedar, lead, and olive oil to prevent conception. (That’s really quite a shame – with his wisdom he should have carried on his genes and had scores of smart kids.) Soramus, practicing in Rome in the second century, described vaginal plugs, tampons, and suppositories made of gummy substances like honey, cedar gum and oils.

Oh – don’t try this at home!
Ancient cultures also used animal excrement to form vaginal barriers. The Egyptians mixed crocodile dung with a paste and spread this on a diaphragm-like object. Arabians mixed elephant dung and honey in the ninth century (I guess whatever critter is handy – in my house it would be neufoundland and/or parrot poop!) I wonder if these worked chemically, or just kept the guys away for obvious reasons! Asian women covered the cervix with oiled paper discs, and the women of Easter Island used algae and seaweed (there was a shortage of elephants and crocks on the Island).

Casanova, the famous 18th century lover, devised a primitive cervical cap and squeezed lemon juice on it. Most modern day guys don’t take that responsibility and leave it to the woman. Especially airline pilots. I like Casanova! In Constantinople, women also used lemon juice on vaginal sponges. The citric acid provided additional spermicidal protection.

By the way, the modern contraceptive sponge has been reintroduced into the US and is available over the counter. In one episode of “Seinfeld” the character Elizabeth Barnes stated that a man knows that a woman is interested in him sexually if she considers him “spongeworthy”!

Rubber primitive diaphragms were made by the Connecticut inventor Charles Goodyear in the 1850’s. He also revolutionized safe sex in the back of cars when he invented the rubber condom – and rubber car tires! The condom really needed an update – primitive condoms were made out of sheep caecum (part of the intestine) and the sheep were getting upset.

Oral early contraception poisoned and killed many women – drinking mercury and lead 4,000 years ago in China no doubt slowed the population growth, and in the 1700’s a potion of dried beaver testicle boiled in alcohol was ingested by women in New Brunswick. Why would they do that? Poor beavers.

We are so fortunate that the search for knowledge persevered through the ages. We not only had to search and research, we had to dodge laws. The Comstock laws of 1870 resulted in the suppression of info about birth control. Margaret Sanger, the woman who started Planned Parenthood , was arrested for mailing contraceptive info out, like I’m doing right now. And, in the beginning of the 20th century, The American Social Hygiene Association fought hard to have condoms banned. It was felt that if you contracted a “venereal disease” then you got what you deserved. Sounds like my mother. So many soldiers in WW1 suffered high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. I guess “just say no” didn’t work then either!

I obtained these pearls from “Women’s Health Care” A Practical Journal for Nurse Practitioners Vol,5, No.5 The comments are my own!!

- Lynne Fiore, NP

© Lynne A Fiore, 2013

1 Comment

  1. So glad we have modern medicine.


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