From dung to condoms, birth control's history

CLEVELAND — CLEVELAND -- The elephant dung was no trouble at all. When the circus came to town, Percy Skuy simply showed up with a bucket and politely asked the keeper if he could collect a few droppings.

The mule's earwax? Now, that was a challenge. Skuy asked a friend in Mexico for advice. A few weeks later, the friend sent photos of two ranch hands struggling to hold a mule while a third extracted a clot of wax from a hairy ear.


Skuy set the greasy blob on black velvet, near the vial of elephant dung.

Another exhibit successfully mounted in the History of Contraception Museum.


In a 40-year quest to document the science -- and superstition -- of family planning through the ages, Skuy has sought out weasel testicles and hairy spiders, carrot seeds, candy wrappers and a bone from an all-black cat. He has collected hundreds of IUDs and cervical caps. He has preserved the first experimental female condoms and the short-lived "cerviscope" of the 1960s, an awkward device designed to help women monitor their fertility.

It is a lonely obsession. And a frustrating one. As Skuy, a retired pharmaceutical executive, points out with some sorrow, "there's really no motivation to save an old contraceptive."

Still, here and there, gynecologists and patients with a sense of history have held on to favorite devices. Skuy, 72, has traveled the globe to acquire them. His collection, he says, is more than a curiosity: It's about science and sociology, about the limits of modern medicine and the ageless drama of human desire.

The artifacts "tell of a human motivation across the centuries, in different countries and different cultures, to limit family size," he said. "There are any number of museums that display fertility symbols. The story of how people tried to curb their fertility is every bit as important."

Plus, he says genially, "people find it interesting."

Skuy recently donated his one-of-a-kind collection to the Dittrick Medical History Center here at Case Western Reserve University. Hundreds of contraceptives -- some ingenious, some barbaric -- are on display in glass cases in the medical library, accessible to scholars, students and anyone curious about early IUD design or faux crocodile-skin condoms.

"It's such an honor," said Jim Edmonson, the center's curator. "These surviving objects tell us a story you can't find in the literature."

The story starts in 1550 B.C., with a prescription written on papyrus: "To cause that a woman should cease to conceive," moisten a bit of wool lint with honey, mix in ground dates and the tips of acacia flowers and use the sticky wad as a vaginal suppository. Like many ancient methods, this one might have worked: Acacia breaks down to lactic acid, a spermicide used today.


The animal dung women used as suppositories in ancient India may have been effective, too: Some manure is acidic enough to kill sperm. But the earwax amulets popular in the Middle Ages? Not a chance. Still, Skuy cautions against ridiculing such folklore.

"Men today spend an inordinate amount of money on rhinoceros horns and elk antlers as aphrodisiacs," he points out. "If people can do that in the 21st century, it's easy to understand these old superstitions."

And not all was superstition. Hundreds of years before scientists understood reproduction -- sperm was not observed under a microscope until 1677 -- men and women invented birth control strikingly similar to modern contraceptives.

The museum documents the use of cervical caps made of lemon halves, natural sea sponges dipped in olive oil, and condoms fashioned from sheep intestine. It explores approaches to oral contraception long before the pill: Women in China 4,000 years ago drank mercury, which probably did sterilize them if it didn't kill them. In 17th-century India, women munched carrot seeds as a postcoital contraceptive. In parts of Canada, even today, some women steep dried beaver testicles in alcohol, then drink the potion.

Skuy, who grew up in a small South African village, stumbled on his passion for birth-control products in the 1960s, when he got a job as a sales representative for Ortho Pharmaceutical in Toronto.

Ortho had just introduced one of the first birth-control pills. It also made diaphragms, jellies, condoms and other contraceptives; Skuy was assigned to sell them to physicians.


The trouble was, it was a criminal offense in Canada until 1969 to promote or advertise contraceptives. So Skuy found he had to do a lot of educating -- in secret. He would hide a diaphragm in his suit pocket and wander the halls of a hospital. When he came across a young doctor, he would pull him into an empty room and explain how the product worked. He also passed out placards for physicians to put on their desks -- "Family Planning Information Available" -- to spare them from having to broach the subject with their patients.

In 1965, Skuy was asked to speak to a pharmacists group about the latest methods of contraception. He opened his talk with a few remarks on the history of birth control. That introduction proved so popular, the pharmacists invited him to expand on it.

Skuy searched Ortho's archives for old birth-control prototypes to enliven his speech. He soon realized that most of what he sought had long since been tossed in the trash.

Solid-gold cervical plugs from the 1930s. Early IUDs shaped like butterflies, bows or coiled snakes. Condoms bought and sold on the black market.

"These were truly one-of-a-kind things, and people were not saving them," Skuy said.

So he set out to do it himself.


His bosses at Ortho Pharmaceutical encouraged him. Or, at least, Skuy said upon further reflection, they never told him to stop. In 1973, he became president of the company. And everywhere he went, he put out word that he wanted contraceptives.

Dr. Jack Lippes, who invented the IUD design known as the "Lippes Loop," donated dozens of experimental devices he had crafted in different shapes and sizes. Gynecologists the world over sent odd devices they had removed from patients -- including one IUD made from knotted fishing line. (It evidently worked, as the woman had worn it for a decade without conceiving.)

When traveling, he made a point of asking local guides about their customs.

Once, in India, a guide showed him a neem tree, renowned for its medicinal properties. Skuy remembered reading that Indian women used to steep branches from the tree in a special "fumigation" kettle, then stand over the steam after intercourse, hoping to prevent pregnancy. He snipped off a few branches for his museum. His wife, Elsa, a professional potter, made a ceramic replica of a fumigation kettle for the display.

Skuy eventually displayed his collection in the lobby of Ortho's Toronto headquarters for years -- never drawing a single protest, he said. After retiring in 1995, he began to consider how to make it more accessible. He chose Case's Dittrick center in part because it has a large collection of old medical devices.

"This museum isn't a place to go and giggle at," said Dr. Malcolm Potts, a professor of family planning at the University of California in Berkeley. "It shows how we've struggled with a variety of products over the years."


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