301: Pregnancy & Pee

301: Pregnancy & Pee

Brain Junk
Brain Junk
301: Pregnancy & Pee

From wheat to mice to rabbits to…you won’t believe the techniques we’ve used to determine if a woman is pregnant. The history of detecting pregnancy is long, inexact, and strange. Buckle up for some crazy science.

Show Notes:

Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Pee is for Pregnant: The history and science of urine-based pregnancy tests

NIH timeline of the history of the pregnancy test

Margaret Crane the 26 year old inventor of the home pregnancy test

Dollar Store pregnancy tests


[00:00:03] Speaker A: Welcome to Brain junk. I’m Amy Barton.

[00:00:05] Speaker B: And I’m Trace Kerr. And today is everything you never knew you wanted to know about pregnancy and pee.

[00:00:14] Speaker A: I feel like I’ve experienced enough and I’m done with that. But I’m sure you’re going to dazzle me.

[00:00:19] Speaker C: Well, yeah.

[00:00:20] Speaker B: Okay. So have you ever done the pregnancy? I mean, you have two kids, you’ve done the little stick, like the ept kind of thing? I’ve had two different versions. I’ve had the huddled in a bathroom waiting feverishly for not pregnant.

[00:00:35] Speaker A: Yes.

[00:00:37] Speaker B: And then also the yes sort of version.

[00:00:40] Speaker A: Yeah.

Have you seen the commercial? There’s a commercial out there where they have both scenarios too, and I think that’s a smart advertising tool. It’s very inclusive.

[00:00:50] Speaker C: Yes.

[00:00:50] Speaker B: Because you might be thrilled and you might not be thrilled at all.

[00:00:54] Speaker A: Yeah.

[00:00:55] Speaker C: Okay.

[00:00:55] Speaker B: So while you’re waiting feverishly for those two lines to appear or not appear.

[00:01:00] Speaker A: You wash your hands a lot.

[00:01:02] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:01:03] Speaker B: You’re probably not thinking about the science that got you to that moment.

[00:01:07] Speaker A: I kind of was, because I worked at a shelter and we did drug testing, but I never got any further than that. Like, what’s activating this and why is it poppy seeds? It’s probably not poppy seeds.

[00:01:23] Speaker B: Well, it’s something. Something’s in there making things turn purple. Well, for pregnancy test, it turns out that the thing that makes the test positive or negative is the amount of hcg hormone. That’s human chorionic gonadotrotropin. And I’m just going to say hcg because. Yeah, it’s a mouthful.

[00:01:42] Speaker A: Yes.

[00:01:43] Speaker B: Growing embryos give off hcg and that’s in a pregnant person’s blood and urine.

[00:01:53] Speaker A: So that’s why you have to wait a little bit to have enough to show that something is growing.

[00:01:57] Speaker C: Yes.

[00:01:57] Speaker B: That’s also why the test says take it in the morning when you’ve got the first pea of the day, because it’s more concentrated. Yeah. I got to thinking about this because I was watching an episode of the great. It’s Catherine the Great.

It’s an odd show, but they’re trying to figure out if she’s pregnant or not. And so she comes out of, like a changing room and there is a sheaf of wheat with the grains on it and it’s on the floor on a trace. And they have her pee on the wheat.

[00:02:27] Speaker A: Really?

[00:02:28] Speaker B: And she’s told, right, if they green up and sprout that she’s pregnant. And I went, ha.

[00:02:34] Speaker A: Yeah, that seems like it’s liquid.

[00:02:38] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:02:38] Speaker B: Turns out. It’s true.

[00:02:40] Speaker A: What?

[00:02:40] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:02:41] Speaker A: So farm kids, you could be doing this.

[00:02:43] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:02:44] Speaker B: Not like pea hits it, boom. Green sprouts. But no, Egyptians did this. Way back in 1350 BCE, a woman would urinate on barley and wheat seeds. And if the barley sprouted, they said it would be a boy. And if the wheat sprouted, it would be a girl. Now this is. You pee on it over a couple of days and it would sprout if you were pregnant.

Now, the NIH, the National Institute of Health, had this huge timeline about pregnancy, pee testing and things like that. They tried to replicate this test in 1963 and it was accurate for at least detecting pregnancy 70% of the time.

[00:03:24] Speaker A: Wow, that is really good stats for here. Pee on this wheat. That’s wild.

[00:03:31] Speaker B: It’s crazy, right? Okay, so I love that they figured that out and then we bumbled along. So they were doing this, what, 1350 BCE? For 3000 years, we were just kind of guessing if a person was pregnant or not.

[00:03:45] Speaker A: Yeah. Let us know how your bottoms are fitting. How’s your belt?

[00:03:51] Speaker B: Is your dress too tight?

Okay, so that was up until about 1927. And then scientists were getting the idea that hormones might have something to do with this whole pregnancy thing and they were trying to come up with ways to test the level. Right, okay. So the a to z test was created by Asheim and Zondek. A to z.

They would. Scientists being sciency, they would inject a woman’s urine into a mouse. And if the woman was pregnant, there would be enough hcg in her urine to make the mouse ovulate and go into heat.

[00:04:30] Speaker A: That is weirdly circuitous and feels like a witch hunt. If your mouse ovulates, you’re not a witch.

How did they think that up? Did it work?

[00:04:44] Speaker C: Well, okay. Yeah.

[00:04:45] Speaker B: So five mice need to be injected. Takes about a week, and that’s if the test was done after the woman has enough hcg to even be detected. And it’s inconvenient for the mice because you have to open them up and look inside to see if they have ovulated.

[00:05:01] Speaker A: That seems sort of a high risk of mice.

[00:05:04] Speaker B: Well, yeah, it’s a one and done test. Mouse has done the test and then moves on. Cross the rainbow bridge. Thank you, mouse.

[00:05:13] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:05:13] Speaker A: Thank goodness things have evolved.

[00:05:16] Speaker B: Yeah, it got worse before it got.

[00:05:18] Speaker A: So it usually does.

[00:05:20] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:05:20] Speaker B: The mice were really hard to test because they’re small. And then I remember seeing old movies where they might joke about a rabbit in pregnancy. Do you ever remember that? Like movies from the.

[00:05:30] Speaker A: But I don’t have a good concrete what the ha ha was about.

[00:05:35] Speaker B: Okay, well, the ha ha was they figured out that it was easier to inject the rabbits than mice, and so you could do one rabbit with a woman’s urine and do the test.

[00:05:47] Speaker A: Wow.

[00:05:48] Speaker B: Again, the rabbit crosses the rainbow bridge. Thank you for your service.

[00:05:52] Speaker A: And can they have it for dinner, though?

[00:05:54] Speaker B: No, because it’s a science rabbit.

[00:05:56] Speaker A: They’re not delicious.

[00:05:59] Speaker B: No.

So you have the. No one is getting this done unless they’ve got really good health care. And it was expensive, that sort of thing.

[00:06:08] Speaker A: And by the time they get the results she’s showing.

[00:06:12] Speaker B: Then came frogs.

But here’s the thing, they were easier and they lay eggs so you don’t have to kill the frog. And instead of taking a week, frogs only took 12 hours.

[00:06:26] Speaker A: Oh, wow. Really?

[00:06:27] Speaker C: Yes.

[00:06:28] Speaker A: That’s wild.

[00:06:29] Speaker B: Thousands of frogs were injected with human urine from the. So clearly it was the best thing we had going.

[00:06:36] Speaker A: Our grandmothers could have done this.

[00:06:38] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:06:38] Speaker B: Can you imagine that lab? It’s just full of frogs and they’re getting vials of pea shipped in every day.

[00:06:43] Speaker A: Yeah, it seems. I like the witchy version. Like, please bring a frog in with.

[00:06:48] Speaker B: You or just the wheat. I mean, 70% accuracy. That’s pretty good.

[00:06:53] Speaker A: I know. Although, can you imagine living in that household? Like, no, don’t touch that stinky wheat.

[00:07:00] Speaker B: Don’t touch the bowl of wheat on the floor in the bathroom.

[00:07:03] Speaker A: Yeah, just leave that alone.

[00:07:06] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:07:06] Speaker B: So by the 60s, they had tests in doctors offices, and by 1971 in Canada and 1977 in the US, we had the first at home pregnancy tests hit the market. But these early ones. Did you just say the, that’s late 1977 in the United States.

[00:07:28] Speaker A: Oh, wow. So my little sister was the only one that they could have found out in advance without using a frog or wheat.


[00:07:37] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:07:38] Speaker B: Dark ages. And these first pregnancy tests, they were a ten step process.

[00:07:44] Speaker A: It’s like the COVID tests, which goes wrong. Five. You can get it done in five.

[00:07:50] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:07:50] Speaker B: And this was like test tubes, droppers. You had dried capsules of sheep’s blood and hcg antibodies. Yeah. And you had to keep the test tubes vibration free for 2 hours.

[00:08:01] Speaker A: Wow. So don’t put it by the back door.

[00:08:04] Speaker B: I know. Exactly. No one go in the bathroom. The tests were 97% accurate for a positive if you did it correctly.

[00:08:13] Speaker A: So adults with ADHD probably didn’t know, following all ten steps to the letter. Oh, my gosh.

[00:08:24] Speaker C: Yes.

[00:08:24] Speaker B: Well. And I didn’t even look. Let’s see, 1979 home pregnancy test cost. I didn’t even look at that.

[00:08:33] Speaker A: Oh, yeah.

[00:08:34] Speaker B: The at home pregnancy test revolution, 1978, called the early pregnancy test, or ept. Oh, look at them.


[00:08:44] Speaker A: So in 1977, $10 was, let’s see.

[00:08:47] Speaker B: $10 worth more in 19 went a lot farther. Eight worth today. That’d be almost a $50 test.

[00:08:56] Speaker A: That’s what I wondered.

[00:08:57] Speaker B: That’s not cheap.

[00:08:59] Speaker A: No.

So I suspect that was not people like my mom. No, they wouldn’t be doing that.

[00:09:06] Speaker B: No. It also wouldn’t be a teenager going, oh, no.

[00:09:10] Speaker A: Right. Exactly.

No. Yeah. Those were just precarious times. To live in this modern era is challenging in many ways, but there are fewer unfortunate surprises.

[00:09:23] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:09:24] Speaker B: So by 1988, they figured out that you could have your hcg antibodies interacting with a dye instead of the original ones. It was sheep’s blood, and you had to put antibodies in the sheep’s blood, and then you put urine in there, and then the sheep’s blood would kind of coagulate.

[00:09:43] Speaker A: Eye of newt.

[00:09:44] Speaker C: Oh, yeah.

[00:09:45] Speaker B: Total magic stuff that’s going on. But by 1988, they were like, hey, you know what? We could just have the blue line of terror happen.

[00:09:56] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:09:56] Speaker A: So we still have unfortunate surprises. It’s just a lot faster. Or fortunate surprises.

[00:10:01] Speaker B: And I have even heard people talking about getting the dollar store pregnancy test and how it’s rather accurate. And I don’t know if that’s actually true, but if you needed something quickly, it’s way better than a bunch of mice or some frogs.

[00:10:15] Speaker A: Yeah, I have heard that, too, about the dollar store tests. Like, just buy two packs. Four can’t be wrong.

[00:10:21] Speaker B: No.

[00:10:21] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:10:23] Speaker B: And you know what’s really funny is I don’t know a single woman that hasn’t done this multiple times in her lifetime.

[00:10:30] Speaker A: Oh, yeah.

[00:10:31] Speaker B: All the time. And it probably just never came up that you’re like, I should just check.

[00:10:37] Speaker A: Yes. Because we don’t want to wait to find out. That is just.

[00:10:41] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:10:41] Speaker B: So that is the weird, strange and winding history of detecting pregnancy with pee.

[00:10:49] Speaker A: I am very surprised it took that long because birth control is older than that. Right. Well, they had that dialed in sooner.

I’m going to have to look it up real quick.

[00:11:02] Speaker B: I mean, your birth control pills. Absolutely not. But I mean, we’ve been using all sorts of different things for a very long time to try to prevent.

[00:11:11] Speaker A: First birth control pill was approved in May, 1960. I do not know how safe that was or how widely available, but that’s FDA approved in 1960, so never mind.

[00:11:22] Speaker B: Well, no, but see, 1960, that’s like a blink ago. Right. And I can remember the birth control pills I was taking in college that discontinued because they were like, we feel like these might give people blood clots and kill them. And it’s like, wow, I took those for years.

[00:11:36] Speaker A: Yeah. Lucky you. I know.

[00:11:39] Speaker C: Knock on wood.

[00:11:40] Speaker A: Yeah, it’s wild.

[00:11:42] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:11:42] Speaker B: It’s been an inexact and strange science for a really long time. So there you go.

[00:11:47] Speaker A: Who was the one that thought, you know, we could make a mouse body feel like it’s pregnant? And that’s how we can know?

[00:11:54] Speaker B: I don’t know.

[00:11:55] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:11:55] Speaker A: I feel like there had to have been chats around beers to get to that place. But true brains, science brains are different. They are endlessly creative.

[00:12:04] Speaker B: It was also scientists in the 1920s.

I imagine there was just some like, let’s just see what happens when we stick it in here.

[00:12:14] Speaker A: Let’s f around and find out what’s wrong with scientists of that era.

[00:12:18] Speaker B: Yeah, they got a syringe of pee and he’s like, well, what happens if we put it in a couple of animals?

Guys, stop.

[00:12:26] Speaker A: Yeah. It reminds me of the scene in ant man where one of the scientists has no moral compass, is trying to figure a thing out. He is willing to go through a.

[00:12:34] Speaker B: Lot of resources to do the thing that needs to be.

[00:12:37] Speaker C: Yeah.

[00:12:37] Speaker A: Yeah. I am grateful for this modern era where I do not have to find a frog or find a lab with frogs.

[00:12:44] Speaker B: Agreed.

[00:12:49] Speaker A: If you had a pregnancy test via frog, would you please pop onto Facebook or Instagram and let us know? Yeah, we’re brain junk podcast. Or if your grandma did and she’s like, do you remember that time? Well, they wouldn’t remember. But, you know, if they’re starting to tell stories like that, we absolutely want to hear that story. Brain junk podcast on social media. You can be oG and email us at brainjunkpodcast@gmail.com. If it’s your grandma, she’s probably emailing us. You’re probably hopping on social media.

Of course. Wherever you listen, like and subscribe, check out our merch store. What’s your favorite thing right now? I like the mug cup with the.

[00:13:26] Speaker B: Non newtonian fluid cat. I absolutely adore it.

[00:13:30] Speaker C: He’s so.

[00:13:30] Speaker A: Check out the merch store, brainjunkpodcast.com. I think you should be seeing a theme in our, like, how to find us. It’s not hard.

[00:13:38] Speaker B: Would you just use your name over and over and over again?

[00:13:41] Speaker C: Yes.

[00:13:42] Speaker A: We are marketing geniuses. Ah. So of course, we’ll catch you next time when we share more of everything you never knew you wanted. To know, and I guarantee you will not be bored.

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