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What do crocodile dung and tonic have in common?

reading time: 3 minutes reading time

Contraception, shock horror, isn’t a new thing. Turns out that for 1000s of years men and women have wanted to have sex because they enjoy it, not just to create a new life. So how did our ancestors have fun and try to reduce the risk of pregnancy? Well, turns out some of their methods were quite interesting.

Firstly, the oldest method of “contraception” that is still used today is coitus interruptus, a.k.a the withdrawal method. Worth noting that this is not recommended as it’s not very effective; if any guy says “It’s fine, I can control it!” Our advice is to take control and kick them out the door.

The next documented use of contraception is in the form of a pessary; a large soluble pill that is inserted into the vagina. Yes, you read that right. Doesn’t sound like something you particularly want to do before sex, does it? Not only is it quite unsexy, but the materials that women used in Ancient Egypt, around 1850 B.C, included crocodile dung, honey and sodium carbonate, in the hope that it would block or kill sperm. Thankfully, science has advanced, because crocodiles are pretty hard to come by in Europe.

In the 1600s the use of vaginal douches was first reported. Douches are used to clean or rinse out the vagina, but they are not recommended as either safe or effective.

In the mid-1800s we start to see some of the methods that we are still familiar with today. The first use of condoms can be traced back to the 15th Century in Asia, but again the materials were not ideal and included lamb intestines and animal horn. Ouch. In 1855 the first rubber condoms were produced following the invention of rubber vulcanisation by Charles Goodyear in 1839. Also, suppositories/pessaries were still common, with English pharmacist Walter Rendell developing the first commercial vaginal suppository in 1885. It consisted of cocoa butter and quinine sulphate. Personally, I’d rather eat chocolate and have my quinine in tonic water.

Fast forward a century or so and we reach the invention of the combined oral contraceptive pill in the 1950s. This was seen as a major medical milestone of the 20th century; it was considered the first time that women were able to reliably control their fertility. Over the last 50 years the hormone type, dose and regimen of the pill have evolved slowly to suit women’s needs. It has become one of the most popular forms of contraception, with over 100 million women taking the pill worldwide.

This formed the basis for developments of hormonal contraception; aside from the introduction of the copper intrauterine device (IUD) in the 1970s, the majority of advances in contraception centred around different methods of controlling the hormonal cycle. These included:

  • first injectable for short-term contraceptive use (UK, 1970s)
  • hormonal contraceptive implants (USA, 1960s, UK, 1990s)
  • hormone-releasing IUDs (1996)
  • contraceptive patch (2000s)
  • vaginal ring (2000s)
  • long-cycle oral contraceptive (EU, 2012)

So, thank you science! Thank you for creating multiple contraceptive options that allow me to control my fertility and periods, without having to hunt for crocodile poo.


Download the History of Oral Contraception Infographic
An interesting infographic showing how oral contraception has changed over the years, from 1941 till now.