The weird history of contraception

Almost 60 years since it was first developed, the pill still remains the single most popular method of contraception for women in the UK.

First approved for use on 23 June 1959, the oral contraceptive has changed women’s lives by allowing them to choose when to get pregnant - or not.

And with options today including patches, coils, injections and implants - there has never been so much choice.

But it wasn't always that way. We look back at the wacky, weird and downright dangerous (and mostly ineffective!) methods used by our ancestors.

Crocodile dung

Crocodile
Crocodile dung was mixed with sour milk to form a thick paste which was inserted into a woman's vagina

Spare a thought for Ancient Egyptian women whose, rather stinky, contraceptive of choice was crocodile dung.

Mixed with sour milk to form a paste, the dungy dough was inserted into the vagina with the hope it would create an acidic barrier to sperm.

Sounds disgusting? The barrier method is still popular today, with the modern version being a diaphragm or cap made of thin, soft silicone covered in spermicide. Thank goodness for progress.

Animal intestines

Condom made from sheep intestine, c.1800
Sheep intestines were used to make condoms in the 1800s. Looks rather... uncomfortable.

It would seem we owe a lot to the Egyptians when it comes to contraception. The earliest known condoms were found in Ancient Egypt, where linen sheaths were used to protect against disease.

But the condoms we know today were first developed during the English Civil War, when King Charles I’s soldiers were issued with sheaths made from fish and sheep intestines to protect them from sexually transmitted diseases.

And, in the 18th century, a linen alternative was made for the Italian playboy Casanova. He also inflated them prior to use to test for any leaks – an early form of quality control.

Acidic douches

Jars with medicines in a pharmacy
Acidic mixtures have been used for thousands of years in attempt to kill sperm

Fruit acids, jellies, pastes and various mixtures were used in an attempt to prevent conception for a long time.

Roman women were said to favour douching. Rinsing the vagina before or after sex with fluids, such as sea water, lemon juice or vinegar. Douches flushed out sperm and - they hoped - killed any that remained. These techniques were still used well into the 20th century and even included douching with fizzy drinks.

Although anything sharply acidic or alkaline can affect sperm none of these methods are recommended as either safe or effective, by the way.

Jump!

And if you didn’t fancy acid douches, dung paste or sheep intestines how about the 2nd century Greek method of jumping backwards seven times and sneezing immediately after sex to prevent pregnancy?

Greek physician Soranus advised women to undertake this performance due to the belief jumping and squatting straight after sex would stop the sperm from entering a woman’s uterus.

Needless to say the procedure was pretty useless.

Wear weasel testicles

But the prize for the weirdest way to ward off pregnancy goes to the European Middle Ages when wearing weasel testicles was the go-to birth control method of choice.

The Trotula, a 12th century female medical guide, advised women to cut off the animals’ testicles while they were alive, wrap them in goose skin and wear them as amulets if they didn’t want to get pregnant.

Who needs science when you’ve got magic?

Thankfully, these methods are consigned to history. For current contraception advice visit the NHS contraception guide.

Weasel standing in grass
Wearing testicles of weasels was once considered a way to prevent pregnancy
Hormones in human reproduction
The changing role of women in the 1960s
The campaign for women's suffrage