It’s pretty cool to look back and to see how far the science of gynecology has come throughout history. With the exception of obviously barbaric practices (some of which we’ve still encountered today…like the Essure contraceptive coil) I always wonder about the common sense wisdom that informed medical practices in past times — things like the understanding that warming spices and oils can have a healing and detoxifying effect on the body, including on the womb.

Looking way back, we actually have a couple of really early manuscripts that address gynecological concerns. The two I’ve been looking at today are both from Egypt, prior to the time when the Greeks were in Egypt (the time when pharaohs, like Cleopatra, were actually Greeks).

The oldest manuscript with gynecological information that we know of is the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus. One source I looked at said it dates back to 1900 BC, while another said it is from 1800 BC. Either way it’s old! This document seems to connect things as seemingly disconnected as eye aches to maladies of the womb, which is rather interesting. But from this manuscript, we know that ancient Egyptians were developing knowledge around fertility. ‘It contains various means for determining sterility and means to achieve and avoid pregnancy.’

Taken from Wikipedia (linked).

The second manuscript, which is just a few hundred years younger than the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, is the Ebers Medical Papyrus. This one is from around 1550 BC. It currently lives in Leipzig, Germany. This manuscript ‘documented that physicians of ancient Egypt were aware of sterility, fertility, and family planning.’

The Ebers Medical Papyrus is where we have record of an early contraceptive pessary. In order to prevent conception, a woman would make a paste containing honey, dates, and acacia and spread this over a piece of wool, which she then would insert into her vagina. (I wonder what happened when they put such sugary foods in the vagina! Yikes!)

Taken from Wikipedia (linked).

Out of curiosity, I looked up the pH of these components. One of the ways that the female reproductive system cycles through phases of fertility and infertility is that the vagina is at some times alkaline (thereby friendly to sperm) and at other times acidic (killing sperm). Therefore, I wondered if these ingredients might happen to be more on the acidic side, thereby actually having the potential to have been maybe a tiny bit effective.

So when infertile, the vagina’s pH ranges from 3.5-4.5 (acidic). And when fertile, because of cervical fluid being present, the vagina’s pH ranges from 6.5-7 (alkaline).

Honey has a pH that ranges from about 3.4-6.1 (so it could go either way with encouraging alkalinity or acidity here…we’d have to learn more about what specific type of honey was used). Dates have a pH of about 8.5, making then quite alkaline, which would seem to make it a more sperm-friendly pH, unless there’s some other component of dates that might kill sperm despite having such a high alkalinity. And as for acacia, I don’t know what part of the tree was used, and I can’t seem to find pH information very readily, only what soil pH is preferred by these trees.

Aside from pH, however, just think about the stickiness of both dates and honey (and perhaps it was the acacia that also assisted in keeping the paste together). I’m not sure any sperm could get through such a sticky trap, regardless of how alkaline it was! (But don’t try this on yourself…I’d imagine you’d get a lovely candida overgrowth from the sugars.)

Note: both citations here are taken from Reproductive Anatomy & Physiology: A Primer for FertilityCare Professionals (2nd Ed.) by Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D. Cover image by Anita Austvika on Unsplash.

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