Reading progress update: I've read 205 out of 377 pages.

Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History - Jay Burreson, Penny Le Couteur

I've just started Chapter 11 - The Pill - and the historical background is brief, but even the short list of early attempts at oral contraception makes one glad that we have advanced quite a bit:


Over the centuries and in every culture women have swallowed many substances in the hope of preventing conception. None of these substances would have accomplished this goal except, perhaps, by making the woman so ill she would be unable to conceive. Some of the remedies were fairly straightforward: brewed teas of parsley and mint, of leaves or bark of hawthorn, ivy, willow, wallflower, myrtle, or poplar. Mixtures containing spiders’ eggs or snake were also suggested. Fruits, flowers, kidney beans, apricot kernels, and mixed herbal potions were other recommendations.

At one time the mule featured prominently in contraception, supposedly because a mule is the sterile offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. Sterility was allegedly assured if a woman ate the kidney or uterus of a mule.

For male sterility the animal’s contribution was no less tasty; a man was to eat the burned testicles of a castrated mule. Mercury poisoning might have been an effective means of attaining sterility for a woman swallowing a seventh-century Chinese remedy of quicksilver (an old name for mercury) fried in oil—that is, if it did not kill her first. Solutions of different copper salts were drunk as contraceptives in ancient Greece and in parts of Europe in the 1800s.

A bizarre method from the Middle Ages required a woman to spit three times into the mouth of a frog. It was the woman who would become sterile, not the frog!