A Brief History of the IUD: The Strange Ways We've Tried to Stop Pregnancy
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/JPC-PROD
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Picture a series of copper beads on a fine titanium alloy wire curved in a graceful sphere. It looks like an earring, but you won’t find it in a jewelry store because it’s not jewelry. It’s made to go in your uterus.
IUDs are the fastest growing kind of birth control in the U.S. One study showed that use doubled in just two years, from four percent of contracepting women in 2007 to eight percent in 2009. That appears to be just the beginning of a trend. When over 9,000 St. Louis women in an “ Obamacare simulation” were offered the birth control of their choice for free, a whopping 58 percent chose a hormonal or copper IUD. Around the globe today, intrauterine devices are the most popular form of reversible birth control, with over 160 million users.
The idea of putting something small into the uterus to prevent pregnancy goes way, way back, but the history of intrauterine contraception is full of fits, starts and complications. What is that history? Why are IUDs suddenly the hottest thing in birth control for young women? And what should you tell your daughter when she says she wants one?
Stones in Camels?
When nomadic traders needed to keep a female camel from getting pregnant during long treks across the desert, they put stones into the animal’s uterus. The stones acted as a mild irritant, activating the body to fend off sperm and any fertilized eggs. Or so the story goes. When Arab gynecologists hear Europeans repeating the story, they snort and ask, “Have you ever tried to put a stone in a camel’s uterus?”
Since the time sun-beaten trader might have contemplated camel contraception, intrauterine birth control has come a long way.
Silver and Gold Pessaries
The ancient Greek father of medicine, Hippocrates, is credited with first suggesting that small objects in the human uterus might prevent pregnancy. But such a practice would not become commonplace for another two millennia. The first precursors of modern IUDs emerged in the late 19th century in the form of something called stem pessaries. Often made of a precious metal or glass, the typical pessary was mushroom-shaped, with a curved disk that fit into the upper part of the vagina like a cervical cap, and a “stem” passing through the cervix to hold it in place. Sometimes the stem had more of a wishbone shape—two arms that were held together during the insertion process by gelatin, which then dissolved. The most elegant pessaries were made of 14 karat gold and finely crafted. But in the absence of flexible materials and antibiotics and sterile technique, women who used pessaries risked serious injury and infection. One has to understand the enormous dangers of childbirth at the time to appreciate why determined pioneers took the chance.
Silk Thread, G-spots, and War
In the early 20th century, doctors began to experiment with other materials, trying to improve contraceptive design, and by the 1930s pessaries had been replaced by devices that fit entirely in the uterus. Silk thread wrapped with silver wire was offered as one alternative. Unfortunately, two of the leading innovators, doctors Ernst Gräfenberg and Tenrei Ota, were German and Japanese respectively, and—although Gräfenberg is immortalized via the “G” spot, which bears his initial—their contraceptive efforts were derailed by World War II. We tend to count the cost of war in terms of persons lost and cities destroyed, but one can’t help wondering how the lives of our grandmothers and mothers might have been different if war hadn’t thrown contraceptive research off course.