March 17, 2008

From Kill The Wabbit To Pee On A Stick: A History Of The Pregnancy Test

1978 is the 30th anniversary of the home pregnancy test, which was developed by pioneering researchers in reproductive endocrinology at the National Institutes of Health. "A Thin Blue Line" is the NIH's online history of the project, and it makes for great reading if you're a reproductive endocrinologist; for the pregnancy-minded layperson, it's just good.

acutest_1978_popup.jpg

A lot of the history is bogged down in the details of each tiny step in the discovery process, which feels like it requires a working knowledge of hCG [the hormone present in the blood and urine of pregnant women and, it turns out, some cancer patients.], while the working process--which apparently involved monthly trips to nunneries to collect control sample urine--goes largely unexplained. There are vintage ads ["the phrase “urine stream' is difficult to sugar coat."], but only hints at the cultural revolution the "seminal" test [heh] brought about.

Too bad the timeline of pregnancy tests through the ages isn't more expansive; I'm sure a lot of pregnancy testing innovation went on between 1380 BC, when Egyptian women used to pee on barley, and medieval Europe, when "piss prophets" roamed the streets [?].

Though there's lots of discussion of the A-Z Test, Aschheim and Zondek's 1927 breakthrough that identified hCG in urine by injecting it into test animals, the timeline doesn't make the link that it's the "rabbit test," the popular name for the pregnancy test for the middle 50 years of the 20th century.

Which left me with the unanswered question of when the phrase, "The rabbit died!" kicked in. About.com's pregnancy "experts" make the unsourced claim that it happened "in the late 1920 and early 1930s," but I doubt it. The NIH timeline only mentions rabbits as one of several test animals in the 1930s, and it describes the test as expensive and slow, which makes me think it wasn't popular in the Depression.

I would bet that Lucille Ball exclaiming "The rabbit died!" into the phone in 1952 during the second season of I Love Lucy was the trigger. Even though CBS forbade them from using the word "pregnant," I Love Lucy's pregnancy storyline helped make the series the top TV show in the country. Whether the rabbit thing was either a common-enough euphemism or a funny-enough coinage to get the point across, I'm too young to know and too busy to find out.

kill_the_wabbit.jpg

Whichever, though, it sure puts an interesting twist on Chuck Jones' classic 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon, "What's Opera, Doc?" Is "Kill the wabbit!" actually a frantic plea for a secret pregnancy after a passionate-but-taboo-in-the-Fifties extramarital, trans-species hookup? [I smell a thesis topic, Brown or Wellesley students!]

And is it any coincidence that the M*A*S*H episode where Hot Lips Houlihan needed Radar's pet rabbit for a pregnancy test is titled, "What's Up, Doc?" and aired in 1978? [Check out the clip on Snopes where Hawkeye explains the test process to Radar while Houlihan pounds away on the Colonel's stash of liquor. Good thing the rabbit didn't die this time.]

M*A*S*H gets an NIH mention, but another 1978 milestone has been left out: of course, I'm talking about Rabbit Test: the movie. Billy Crystal's first starring role as the world's first pregnant man was Joan Rivers' first and only directorial foray. Crystal, a nebbishy virgin who got knocked up in a round of charity sex on a pinball machine [quick, don't think about Jodi Foster in The Accused, yikes], turned out to be the world's first actually pregnant man. [Remember, Marcello Mastroianni's pregnancy five years earlier, in Jacques Demy's film, A Slightly Pregnant Man was only a psychosomatic hysterical condition brought on by radical global feminism.]

[According to one half-stoned review, Rabbit Test sounds like an utter disaster, a desperately unfunny, Mel Brooks knock-off shot on video using the cast of Hollywood Squares. Or maybe Paul Lynde as Crystal's obstetrician and Jimmy Walker as an African bushman ventriloquist with a blackface dummy played by Billy Barty is just too cerebral for potheads. Has anyone actually seen this thing?]

So anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, you've come a long way, baby! That home pregnancy test arrived on the market just in time.

A Thin Blue Line: a history of the pregnancy test kit [nih.gov via thingsmagazine]
"The Rabbit Died!" [snopes]
Rabbit Test [wikipedia]
Rabbit Test (1978, dir. Joan Rivers) [wikipedia]

1 Comment

Prior to home pregnancy tests, I would imagine that the rabbit test was not that common for the average person -- did your research indicate how often it was used?

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