Of Lemons, Yams and Crocodile Dung: A Brief History of Birth Control

Of Lemons, Yams and Crocodile Dung: A Brief History of Birth Control

By Susan James and Charis Kepron

University of Toronto Medical Journal, Vol.79:2 (2002)

Abstract: Human beings are an ingenious species. Especially, it seems, when it comes to matters of family planning and the control of fertility. For millennia, men and women have made use of some extraordinary methods to prevent conception and although the most significant advances in birth control have occurred within the past 100 years, we truly owe a debt of gratitude to those ancient pioneers. Traditional methods that date back centuries provided inspiration for the development of some of today’s most reliable contraceptives, including the birth control pill and the copper-bearing IUD. Here, we provide a brief history of some of these birth control methods, both for interest and as a tribute to the inventiveness of the human mind.

Excerpt: One of the earliest contraceptive pioneers was Soranus of Ephesus, a Greek physician of the 2nd century C.E. who practiced in Rome and wrote extensively on obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics. Many of his texts exist to this day, and within them can be found an impressive list of plants that were recommended for use as oral contraceptives, suppositories and abortifacients: galbanum, silphium, opopanax, myrtle, rue, white pepper, cow parsnip and pomegranate, to name just a few. These herbs appear time and again throughout the medical texts of classical Greece and Rome, and it seems that at least one of them was too efficacious for its own good!

Take a look at our Medieval Magazine
Take a look at our Medieval Magazine

The herb that Soranus calls “silphium” is thought to be a relative of the giant fennel, and at one time it grew extensively in the region we now call Libya. A dry, arid region, silphium was just about the only thing that could be counted on to grow reliably, and fortunately for the inhabitants of area, wealthy Greeks and Romans were willing to pay top dollar for this medicinal plant. Although used as both a cough remedy and a flavour enhancer in Roman cuisine, the true reason for silphium’s popularity was its reputation as a potent oral contraceptive. So great was the demand for this plant that the city of Cyrene was supported almost entirely by its sales, and by the 4th century C.E., silphium was extinct. Its closest surviving relative is asafetida, a plant whose root sap is used to flavour Worcestershire sauce. Tests of this herb and other species of fennel in rats showed that they are able to inhibit the implantation of fertilized ova at rates of 40-50%. One fennel species prevented pregnancy in rats 100% of the time when fed to the animals within three days of coitus! When we consider that the ancients viewed these cousins of silphium as poor substitutes for the real thing, it is easy to understand how this plant was harvested to extinction.

Click here to read this article from the University of Toronto


Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email