Contraceptives through the ages: From donkey milk to sterilization

HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY. From fermented leaves and donkey milk to condoms, birth control pills and sterilization. Many different methods have been developed to prevent unwanted pregnancies throughout history. Here are seven of them.

Ebers papyrusrulle. Foto: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/TT

Ancient methodology

The very first documented contraceptive is to be found in Eber’s papyrus scroll (pictured), dated to about 1,550 years before our era. There, the Egyptians describe various attempts to prevent pregnancy by using pessary-like solutions made from materials such as crocodile manure, fermented leaves and donkey milk.

Sheep intestine condom from the 19th century. Photo: HERITAGE / TT

The first condoms

From an early age, various condom-like protections of linen or animal intestines were used. The various variants were made by hand and were thus very expensive, but when the American engineer Charles Goodyear (1800–1860) developed vulcanized rubber, it became possible (from the launch in 1844) to manufacture them on a larger scale. The mass production of condoms in thin latex rubber did not start until the 1930s. Nowadays, latex rubber consists of raw latex which is boiled together with sulfur, ammonia and zinc, and there is also a special type of condom developed for women: Phenidom.

Birth control pills. Photo: STAFFAN LÖWSTEDT / SVD / TT

The pill revolution

In the mid-1930s, researchers succeeded in isolating the human sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Ten years later, an American quartet consisting of, among others, nurse Margret Sanger (1879–1966) and researcher Gregory Pincus (1903–1967) developed the first contraceptive pill, a combination of synthetic progesterone and estrogen. In Sweden, the contraceptive tablets, as they were first called, were approved by the then Medicinal Board in 1964. However, the early contraceptive pills posed some problems because they had too high estrogen levels. Research is currently underway to develop birth control pills for men as well.

The picture shows an approximately 2,000-year-old Roman pessary of bronze. Photo: SCIENCE MUSEUM LONDON

Popular pessaries

Shortly after the rubber condom came the pessary for women, a ring with a rubber cover that is put in front of the uterine opening. The first variant was invented by the German gynecologist Wilhelm PJ Mensinga (1836–1910) in 1882, and was named Mesingaring. Pessaries became one of the most common contraceptives until the 1950s and are now made of silicone rubber. It is used together with pessary gel and is available in two variants: Cervical pessaries that cover the uterine tube and vaginal pessaries that cover a larger area.

Spirals of copper and wicker. Photo: OLA TORKELSSON / TT

Coils of copper and plastic

During the 1960s, Chilean researcher and surgeon Jamie A Zipper (1926–2011) discovered that implanting a copper wire into the uterus of rabbits prevented pregnancy. This led to the copper coil, which, among other things, impedes the sperm’s ability to move. In 1974, the American researcher Antonio Scommegna (1931–2017) received a patent for a IUD that instead secretes synthetic progesterone, progestin, into the uterus. He had discovered that progesterone in the uterus causes changes in the mucous membrane that prevent conception.

Instruments used in sterilization. Photo: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / TT


The first recorded sterilization was performed on a dog by the English surgeon Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768–1841). Shortly afterwards, the first sterilization was performed on a human, but by another surgeon in England. Cooper’s research on the vas deferens paved the way for modern surgery, where sterilization of men means that it is cut off and the sperm can thus not pass and mix with the semen. In women, the fallopian tubes are cut or blocked to prevent sperm from reaching the fallopian tubes. Sterilization of men can in some cases be reversible, a new operation can sometimes restore the fallopian tubes.

P-appar. Photo: NORA LOREK/TT


In recent years, several contraceptive apps have been launched, where the user measures their body temperature every day and enters the results in an application on their phone. The methodology is based on the body temperature being slightly lower at the beginning of the menstrual cycle and rising in connection with ovulation. The apps are said to be able to calculate when “safe periods” occur, when women are not fertile, but have been criticized for being unreliable. There are reports of desired pregnancies when using the method.

Sources: Karolinska Institutet, Kondomboken / RFSU, National Library of Medicine, Tekniska museet

Source: Nyteknik – Senaste nytt by

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