For tens of thousands of years, the only contraceptive method was coitus interruptus, the biblical sin of Onan, in which the man withdraws to ejaculate outside the woman’s body.
Every culture sought its own foolproof method to prevent conception. In ancient China, women were advised to swallow quicksilver (mercury) heated in oil. It may well have worked, since mercury is highly toxic and probably poisoned the foetus, and to a lesser extent, the mother.
If you thought that was bad, spare a thought for Egyptian women. Before intercourse, a woman was advised to insert a mixture of crocodile dung and honey into her vagina! The logic was that the viscous honey and dung would have served as a temporary obstacle to impede the runaway sperm from colliding with an egg. The dung, however, because of its sharp acidity, would alter the pH environment necessary for conception to occur, killing the sperm. So, it appears that not just any dung, but crocodile dung is probably history’s first spermicide.
Egyptian birth control methods are the oldest on record. The Petri Papyrus, written about 1850 B.C., and the Eber Papyrus, written three hundred years later, describe numerous methods to avert pregnancy. For the man, in addition to coitus interruptus, there was eye -watering coitus obstructus, which is full intercourse, with the ejaculate forced into the bladder through the depression of the base of the urethra.
Contraceptive methods assumed additional importance in the free-spirited Rome of the second and third centuries A.D. Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek gynaecologist practicing in Rome, clearly understood the difference between contraceptives, which prevent conception from occurring, and abortifacients, which eject the egg after it has been fertilized. The following advice from Soranus should be an integral part of any new government sponsored family planning protocols:
“Immediately following intercourse, women should cough, jump, and sneeze to expel sperm”
Spermicides were a popular birth control method in the Near and Middle East. In ancient Persia, women soaked natural sea sponges in a variety of liquids (including alcohol, iodine, quinine, and carbolic acid) and inserted them into the vagina before intercourse. Syrian sponges, from local waters, were highly prized for their absorbing qualities. Use of perfumed vinegar water, which was also highly acidic, was also a popular method.In the ancient world, physical, as opposed to chemical, means of birth control were also available. From about the sixth century B.C., doctors conceived of countless cap-like devices for the female to insert over the opening of the cervix. Greek doctors advised women to scoop out the seeds of a halved pomegranate to obtain a sperm-blocking cap.
Centuries later, Casanova, the celebrated lover, wrote in his twelve-volume Memoirs (1798) that he frequently presented his mistresses with partially squeezed lemon halves. The lemon shell acted as a physical barrier, and its juice as an acidic spermicide.
A highly effective cervical cap appeared in Germany in 1870. Designed by the anatomist and physician Wilhelm Mensinga, the cap was a hollow rubber hemisphere with a watch spring around the head to secure it in place. Known as the “occlusive pessary,” or “womb veil”.The lack of documentation to the origin of intrauterine devices (IUD) is due to their mysterious function in preventing conception.It is known that during the Middle Ages, Arabs used IUDs to thwart conception in camels during extended desert journeys. Using a hollow tube, an Arab herder would slide a small stone into a camel’s uterus.Astonishingly, not until the late 1970s did doctors begin to understand how an IUD works. The foreign object, metal or plastic today, is treated as an invader in the uterus and attacked by the body’s white blood cells. Part of the white cells’ arsenal of weapons is the antiviral compound interferon. It’s believed that interferon kills sperm, preventing conception.
The Arab practice with camels led to a wide variety of foreign objects being inserted into ladies naughty bits: beads of glass and ebony, metals, buttons, horsehair, and spools of silver threads, to name but a few. However, the first truly effective metal-coil IUD was the “silver loop,” designed in the 1930s by the German physician Ernst Grafenberg, of G spot fame. His work was suppressed by the Nazis when contraception was seen as threat to Aryan women.They seemed to have fallen out of favour in the 1980s due to health concerns but there was a brief fad towards the end of the decade for women to wear gold-plated IUD’s as earrings.
Throughout history, there were doctors in all cultures who advised women to douche immediately after intercourse, believing this alone was an effective contraceptive measure. But modern research has shown that within ten seconds after the male ejaculates, some sperm may have already swum from the vaginal canal into the cervix, where you can douche until the cows come home, but it will still have no effect.
From crocodile dung to douching, all ancient contraceptive methods were largely hit or miss, with the onus of preventing conception falling upon the woman.