Contraception is something many people take for granted nowadays - it’s so readily available and we can choose both the method we want (pills, patches, injections, implants, etc.) and even the type of hormone we want to receive (oestrogen, progestogen and non-hormonal methods like the copper coil and condoms).
But this wasn’t always the case, and there’s been plenty of experimentation in the past to find potential methods of preventing pregnancy, from goat bladders and linen sheaths, to animal dung and honey.
When was contraception invented?
When first developed a few thousand years ago, contraception was actually used as a way to prevent sexual diseases. It wasn’t until much later that people started to use contraceptives as a way of preventing pregnancies.
The first ‘official’ contraception to be invented was likely the condom, as there’s evidence that condoms were used in the UK as early as 1640, but condom-like items were used as early as 3000 BC. Spermicides had been trialled even longer ago than this, with evidence suggesting they had been used as far back as 1850 BC, though how successful these methods were is unclear. Contraception as we know it today in the form of the contraceptive pill was introduced in the UK in 1961.
You can read on to find out more about the types of contraceptives that have been used historically, as well as the ones that are most popular today.
What types of contraception have been used historically?
Still a popular non-hormonal contraceptive method today, condoms are the form of contraception that have been around for the longest time (potentially around 5,000 years).
The first official use of a condom is thought to have occurred in around 3000 BC. King Minos of Crete used the bladder of a goat to prevent diseases from spreading during sexual intercourse. Throughout the years, there have been many types of condoms, including linen sheaths in Egypt in 1000 AD.
Fast forward several centuries and there’s proof that animal intestines were being used as condoms in Birmingham in 1640. From this period, condoms were becoming much more commonplace, though mainly as a way to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from spreading. In 1785, the word ‘condom’ is first used in a UK dictionary, and by 1860, rubber condoms were being produced on a large scale for national usage.
Latex is then invented in the 1920s, producing condoms similar to those that are still widely used today.
Caps and diaphragms
Caps and diaphragms are another form of contraception that are still popular today, but they were very homemade when they were first used a few hundred years ago. There’s some evidence that Africans made diaphragms out of chopped grass or cloth and Jewish women wrapped a sponge in silk that was then inserted.
The official diaphragm was created in 1842 and was particularly popular in the United States from the 1930s. In fact, it was the US’ most commonly prescribed form of birth control during the 1930s.
The diaphragm (or cervical cap) was thought to be first introduced in the UK by Marie Stopes. She was a controversial woman because she founded and opened the first birth control clinic in the country. She wanted to help women who didn’t want children at that time for whatever reason (they’d just had one, they wanted more time between having another child, they didn’t want any more, etc.). In her clinics, the most prescribed item was a cervical cap, and she helped hundreds of women.
Historically, there have been all sorts of substances that were used to prevent pregnancy, but it seems no one understood why they worked. Today, we would know them as spermicides. Spermicides can be effective because they slow the movement of sperm, reducing the chance that they will travel to an unfertilised egg. However, while spermicides are used today to prevent pregnancy, they aren’t as effective as some other methods of birth control.
The earliest known use of spermicides is 1850 BC, and these were in the form of suppositories that were inserted into the vagina. They usually contained either sodium carbonate mixed with honey (honey is a natural spermicide) or animal dung and were thought to stop conception.
A little later, in 1550 BC, there’s evidence that the Egyptians were using honey-soaked lint that looked similar to tampons and in around 350 BC, Aristotle said olive and cedar oil could be used to prevent pregnancy.
What are the most common forms of contraception available today?
Many people use the contraceptive pill today, and it remains one of the most popular forms of birth control. But how it came to be is quite an astounding story.
In the late 1930s, it was discovered that high doses of progesterone could thicken the cervical mucus (to prevent sperm from entering) and help to prevent ovulation, but there was little understanding about how this information could be used and applied. That is until the 1940s, when Dr Carl Djerassi discovered that he could extract a synthetic form of progesterone from wild yam roots in Mexico City. While he didn’t create the first contraceptive pill himself, he’s known as ‘the father of the pill’ because of his research.
Further research followed over the next decade, predominantly in the US by biologist Dr Gregory Pincus, and the first pill became available for married women on the NHS in 1961, but in 1967, it became available for all women. From 1967 until 2020, this pill could only be provided by a doctor via prescription, but some forms, like Lovima®’s progestogen-only pill, can now be purchased through a pharmacy without a prescription.
The intrauterine device (IUD) was first developed in 1909, however it was thought to be ineffective and actually unsafe for women to use. The original device was created by Dr Richard Richter and was made from silkworm guts. Later, Ernest Graedenberg introduced his similar but ‘improved’ device - the silkworm gut was combined with a metal ring that contained copper, nickel and zinc. Both devices were labelled as dangerous, and there wasn’t another IUD available until around 1960.
In 1969, it was discovered by Dr Jaime Zipper that copper was the main material contained in these devices that could prevent pregnancy, and so the IUD was revolutionised. In 1988, an IUD coil was created that is very similar to the ones still used today. Initially, it was approved for four years’ use, but this was increased to 10 years. The IUD isn’t for everyone, but it’s a great form of contraception for those who don’t want to rely on regular tablets or injections.
The implant uses the hormone progestogen, and works much like the progestogen-only pill. Only, rather than taking a tablet each day, the hormone is released into the bloodstream directly from the small plastic rod that’s inserted into the arm.
The first implant was available in Finland in 1983, making it one of the newest forms of contraception. This first type, however, was taken off the market as there were some issues with it. Women reported unwanted side effects, including bleeding, hair loss and headaches, and it was also difficult to remove.
Other types were produced instead, and these were found to have fewer side effects while remaining just as effective. The implant works for a certain amount of time (such as three or five years) and then needs to be replaced, but this is a quick and easy procedure.