Infertility is on the rise.
Along with the socio-political climate, this scientific fact is the thing that makes The Handmaid’s Tale so frightening: an increasing number of people are unable to have children without medical assistance. Between 2003 and 2015 there was a 65% increase in IVF, for example. Most people, who spend their teens and early twenties trying to avoid pregnancy, are shocked to learn later in life that a thirty-year old woman has only a 20% chance of conceiving naturally each month. All of which makes the discovery that a century-old test for infertility actually works as a cure all the more remarkable. And unlike in ancient times, it did not involve dead puppies or cloves of garlic being inserted in the vagina.
Professor Ben Mol, from the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute in Australia, investigated the efficacy of a 100-year old infertility imaging technique. It was only after he started the study that his mother told him that that was how he conceived. The procedure, known as hysterosalpingography (HSG) involves flushing the fallopian tubes using using iodized poppy seed oil. It was first developed in 1917 as a means of examining the uterus and fallopian tubes using X-rays. The results of his study, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that 40% of the infertile women in the sample group who received the oil treatment became pregnant within a year. An exciting medical breakthrough for the millions of Americans wrestling with infertility.
There are other historical medical diagnostic and therapeutic treatments for infertility, however, to which we can be all be glad Dr. Mol did not turn.
As you might imagine, determining if the woman you were about to marry was fertile was a high priority for ancient men. Broadly speaking, people in the ancient world were unaware of even the possibility of male infertility (although there are plenty of spells that deal with impotency), but they were interested in how to figure out if a woman was barren in advance. The central diagnostic tools involved garlic and plants.
An ancient Greek medical papyrus prescribes that if you want to know if a woman will become pregnant, “You should make the woman urinate on this plant, above, again, at night. When morning comes, if you find the plant scorched, she will not conceive. If you find it green, she will conceive.” The logic here is that infertile women and barren plants are somehow synonymous and that the bodies of women can actually affect the agricultural world. For similar reasons, Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century C.E. that menstrual blood had the potential to turn new wine sour, ruin crops, kill the vegetation in your garden, kill bees, and dull steel.
While rooted in a certain set of alarming assumptions about the fluid in women’s bodies, the urine test is relatively innocuous. Other diagnostic tools, however, were a little more unpleasant. In On Sterile Women, the famous 4th-5th century BCE doctor Hippocrates recommended giving a combination of butter (of a particular plant) and the milk of a woman who had given birth to a male child to a fasting woman. If the concoction makes her vomit, we’re told, she is able to get pregnant. Another test involves drinking anise water and seeing if she gets itchy around the navel. In almost all of the tests fertility is indicated by undesirable physical symptoms: itching, joint pain, dizziness, and vomiting, for example.
The most common test in the ancient world, however, involved garlic. Women were supposed to insert a head of peeled garlic into the vagina. If she tastes the garlic in her mouth the next day she was clearly capable of becoming pregnant. As Dr. Laurence Totelin has insightfully noted, the underlying logic here is that women have a tube running between their mouths and vaginas and that in healthy women this tube was not obstructed. She adds that garlic was often linked to sex in the world. Women used to eat it as a means of warding off sexual advances, and sacred laws from Attica instructed men to stay away from garlic, “pigs” (slang for the vulva), and women. The scientific theories justifying these tests actually varied, as Professor Laura Zucconi has argued, from culture to culture; nevertheless a number of ancient peoples from the Greeks to the Egyptians used the “garlic test” for fertility.
This isn’t to say that there were no ancient cures for infertility, but they weren’t especially pleasant either. Pliny the Elder wrote that the urine of eunuchs could counteract the damaging effects of infertility spells. More often than not, however, ancient Greek women resorted to fumigating the vagina. As noted historian of medicine Helen King has written, in the fifth century BC women would sit “while a jar full of healing ingredients was heated up in a hole in the ground, with the top of the jar firmly sealed except for a reed that passed the fumes from the jar into the woman’s vagina.” The point of the procedure, she explains, was to induce the womb – which ancient Greeks believed could wander around the body – to return to its correct location. The contents of the jar included the old favorite garlic, but sometimes seal oil (seals were thought both to look like women and to be well endowed) or dead puppies stuffed with fragrant substances. Why puppies? Likely because they were born in litters and, thus, symbolized fertility.
To this day some women, like Gwyneth Paltrow, continue to use fumigation to “clean” the vagina. This is both against the advice of medical professionals and despite the fact that the vagina is self-cleaning. Still, it’s better than dead puppies.