Having children is important. In modern times, having children is seen as a choice in many countries, but it was once an essential part of human survival. Not only did having children ensure the continuation of a family or clan, but of an entire culture. This made infertility a serious issue, both personally and socially.
Unfortunately, limited understanding of human physiology led most cultures to a lopsided belief. The idea that males lacked virility was unthinkable, so the burden of infertility was placed solely on females (when in reality the burden is statistically 50/50). Very few infertility treatments were geared towards men until recent times, leaving women to endure sometimes bizarre “remedies” for most of human history.
Rome c. 500BCE
“During the feast for Mars, the priests to this god would run through the city whipping the bellies of infertile women with a goatskin whip.” This practice may seem brutal and nonsensical to modern readers, but it illustrates how important fertility was in the ancient world and what women were willing to endure to ensure they could conceive.
Greece c. 460BCE
Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” recognizes stenosis of the cervix as a barrier to conception. He recommends applying a mixture of “red nitre, cumin, resin, and honey. Or it could be dilated by inserting a hollow leaden probe into the uterus enabling emollient substances to be poured in.” Not exactly an HS Catheter, but it was a start.
China, c. 2100BCE – 1971CE
Infertility was not stigmatized in China. To circumvent the issue, men took on concubines. The child of a concubine was considered the man’s legitimate heir even though the child was not conceived with his legal wife. The modern version of this is egg donation with a surrogate mother.
Aztec Empire, c. 1350CE – 1525 CE
Xochiquetzal was one of the Aztecs’ honored goddesses of fertility. “A virgin was chosen to impersonate the goddess, and to wed a chosen warrior who represented Tezcatlipoca [one of her husbands].” One year later at the festival of Toxcatl, the virgin girl was sacrificed. Devotees of the goddess would dance around Xochiquetzal’s priest, confess their sins to a statue of the goddess, and then draw blood from their tongues as an offering. Doing this ensured Xochiquetzal’s continued favor for fertility and childbirth.
Brazil, c. 1500CE – Present
In the Candomblé Bantu belief system brought to Brazil via the African slave trade, devotees pray to Osun, also called Nkisi Ndandalunda, the “Lady of Fertility and Moon.” This transcontinental goddess “is the deity of fresh water; the patron of gestation and fecundity; and receives the prayers of women who wish to have children and protect them during pregnancy.”
USA, c. 1850CE
“Dr. J. Martin Simms tried [artificial insemination] 55 times on six different women, but he did not take their ovulation cycles into account, and as a result, only one of the attempts resulted in pregnancy, which sadly ended in a miscarriage.” A sad story, but a big step for infertility treatment. (Also, if you want to learn about the wrong way to go about being a pioneering Ob/Gyn, read more about Dr. Simms’s unethical methods here.)
England, c. 1970CE
Invitro fertilization succeeds for the first time and Louise Joy Brown is born on July 25, 1978. Doctors had been working for a decade to get extracted eggs and sperm to combine outside of the human body and then implant the embryo in the mother for gestation. Way to go, Doctors Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards!
The understanding and treatment of infertility has had a long, hard journey that isn’t over yet. Even now, scientists and doctors are working on methods to improve fertility through freezing eggs and sperm, and investigating the conditions necessary for an embryo to successfully grow into a child. We at Thomas Medical wish good luck to all of humanity’s pioneers.