Episode 054: Herbal Contraception: Ancient Methods of Birth Control
Since ancient times, women have used plants to regulate menstruation, this information was transmitted from mother to daughter and held by midwives and wise women. There is a rich history surrounding herbs that were used in antiquity to avoid and prevent pregnancy. They found their way into poetry and plays. Their value cannot be denied when their images were stamped onto coins.
Their legend and lore endure to today, yet we wonder… Did they really work? Medical historian, John Riddle was confronted by this question when asked by a student many years ago. While a valid question, it was not one usually addressed by historians. John decided the question deserved a response and thus began a lifetime of research. He went back to the ancient texts, some of which had not been touched in centuries to discover what the ancients really knew.
John’s work led him to follow the clues back in time to connect the dots. Check out this fascinating conversation all about ancient birth control.
John Riddle is a retired professor from the University of North Carolina. He’s the author of eight books primarily on the history of medicine but also on Roman and medieval history. He’s written two books on the history of abortion and contraception from ancient times to Roe vs. Wade. The thesis was that pre-modern women had effective drugs to control pregnancies. He took on a major project of identifying and describing all of the manuscripts of Dioscorides, the famous Roman medical writer and one of John’s favorite sources of information from that time. John’s specialty is to decipher the ancient texts, interpret their contents by introducing medicine, pharmacy, and chemistry into historical studies to answer the underlying question, did these ancient remedies work? This has been described as John’s most original achievement and one that will undoubtedly be his most enduring contributions.
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