The barrier methods of birth control work by preventing the sperm from reaching the egg. The idea of inserting something into the vagina to prevent pregnancy is not new. Such devices were called pessaries and they were used by the ancient Egyptians.
Pessaries were mentioned as early as 1850 B.C. in the Petri Papyrus. The formula then was a mixture of crocodile dung and honey which was placed in the vagina prior to intercourse.
“Interestingly, this mixture not only acted as a barrier to sperm, but had some broad spermicidal effects. If a convenient crocodile wasn’t available, elephant dung could be used,” said Dr. Niels Lauersen, a diplomate of the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Steven Whitney in “It’s Your Body: A Woman’s Guide to Gynecology.”
Various formulas of pessaries were used throughout the world. Elephant dung and honey was the preferred combina¬tion in India and Africa. In Persia during the 10th century, pessaries were made of mixed rock salt and an oily material.
The most popular pessary, however, was invented by Walter Rendell, a London chemist who lived in the late 1800s. Seeing how many people suffered from the burden of having too many children, Rendell developed a pessary containing quinine which he distributed freely to customers at his pharmacy.
“The results of this new pessary exceeded his expecta¬tions. Requests were logged so rapidly that the pessary was marketed commercially in 1886. By the turn of the century, the product was a best seller throughout the world. In fact, until the 20th century, quinine was the only recognized spermicide which could be used with complete safety,” Lauersen and Whitney added.
With the popularity of pessaries, new formulas were developed using less irritating substances. Today’s barrier methods of contraception include the diaphragm, vaginal sponge, condom and cervical cap. These are often used together with chemical barriers such as creams, jellies, foams and suppositories. Let’s examine them one by one.
DIAPHRAGM AND CERVICAL CAP
The diaphragm is a molded rubber cap which blocks sperm as it covers the cervix and the back of the vagina. It must be inserted for each act of intercourse and left on for six to eight hours afterward.
A smaller version of the diaphragm is the cervical cap which covers only the cervix but works the same way. Unlike the diaphragm, however, this device must be fitted by a physician. Women may find it difficult to do the same because the cap must be inserted deep within the vagina.
The first real diaphragm was created by Aetius of Amida in the 6th century using the fruit of the pomegranate tree. After removing the seeds and pulp of that fruit, Aetius told women to insert the hollow end into the vagina before intercourse.
In 1883, Dr. Frederick Wilde, a German physician, described how a rubber cap could block sperm, but it was Dr. Wilhelm Mensinga, another German, who popularized the method. (Next: Disadvantages of diaphragms.)