HHH column: Frog test by Margit Kranenburg

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Margit Kranenburg. Margit is a historian and works as a freelance journalist with healthcare as her specialty. In this column, Margit shares a brief story about her retiring GP, the patients he had in his care for decades, and a pregnancy test that we now find rather peculiar, but that may once have been common knowledge. This column was previously published in Nataal, a Dutch magazine about birth care. It is translated and slightly adjusted for HHH.

Frog test

Margit Kranenburg

My GP decided to retire. He did not want to organise a farewell party, but offered to schedule
short individual appointments for his patients. Those who wanted could say goodbye personally. And
so, on a Tuesday evening at eight o’clock, I walked into the practice to find a packed waiting
room. A quick calculation of the number of people times the promised five minutes gave me a
waiting time of almost an hour. Was I even looking forward to that?

Most of those present were elderly, I was by far the youngest. Since no one was on their
phone to kill time we started talking to each other the old-fashioned way. Next to me sat an
elegant highly aged lady. A patient from the very beginning. She had been there when the
doctor started, still a young fellow. She turned out to be 87 years old and told a lot about the
GP, his predecessor and even the guy before him. Her pregnancy was also discussed. She had
to wait a few years for that in the 1960s. ‘But I was so happy when the doctor was able to say
that I was really pregnant, thanks to the frog test.’ The frog test? ‘Yes, I don’t know exactly
how that went either. But it involved a living frog.’

I wanted to ask more, but suddenly it was my turn to say goodbye. When I got home I
immediately googled that frog test. Indeed, a pregnancy test with a living frog as a tool. A
woman’s urine was injected into the frog and the reaction showed whether the woman was
pregnant. A precursor to the home test with the two lines. The woman had vividly talked
about a technology that was common sixty years ago. Which had given her the certainty that
she had really become pregnant.

Frog test
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a journalist I often write about new techniques and new medications, about sensational
results from new studies. But as a historian I think looking back is just as interesting. I am
curious about how pregnant women experienced maternity care a few generations ago, and
even longer ago. Maybe I should start interviewing women over eighty. Who knows what
insights that could yield.

The 87-year-old in the waiting room of the doctor was by no means living in the past. She had
also proudly showed off her brand new smartphone. She didn’t understand everything yet.
‘But my grandson is coming over tomorrow to install all the apps.’