Why did pregnant women need rabbits?

“The Rabbit Test” was also a movie in which Billy Crystal starred as a pregnant man. It was directed by Joan Rivers. Apparently it was hilarious

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

Here’s a confession: I’ve never used a typewriter. I’ve also never dialed on a rotary phone or played a eight-track tape. I was a deprived child of the 1990s.

One technology I don’t have a hipster-like nostalgia for? The rabbit test.

If this sounds familiar (to youngsters like me), it might be from the scene in season four of “Mad Men” when Roger asks the pregnant Joan, “Did you get the rabbit test?”

The “rabbit test,” also called the Aschheim-Zondek test, was a way of detecting pregnancy through the presence of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). The hormone hCG is sometimes called “the pregnancy hormone” because levels increase when a fertilized egg attaches to the uterine wall. 

In the 1920s, scientists discovered that hCG was present in the urine of pregnant women. German researchers Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek took this research a step further. They found that egg follicles in female mice and rabbits would start to mature if the mice or rabbits were injected with urine from pregnant women.

By the 1940s, “the rabbit test” was a common way for doctors to test for pregnancy. If a woman or her doctor suspected pregnancy, the woman would supply a urine sample. The urine would be given to a special lab to be injected into a rabbit. A few days later, the rabbit would be dissected and checked for changes in its ovaries.

This process led to “the rabbit died” as a euphemism for being pregnant. This was obviously inaccurate because, in early days, the rabbit was killed just to complete the test (whether the results turned out to be positive or negative).

But I’m guessing most people didn’t spend the time or money on a rabbit test if they didn’t already suspect pregnancy. Really, “the rabbit died” was a way of saying “I needed a rabbit” in the first place.

A 1979 ad encouraging women to try a home pregnancy test. From the American Journal of Public Health.

Science has moved on from rabbit tests, which is great. But if I ever get pregnant, I’m going to thank Aschheim and Zondek. The two men, both of Jewish heritage, were forced out of Germany in the 1930s. Without their research just a few years earlier, we might not know the full importance of hCG today. Through accurate detection of hCH, women knew to see their doctors and begin prenatal care. Modern home pregnancy tests are still based on detecting hCG.

And without home pregnancy tests, how could my generation post the happy news on Facebook?

Read more about the weird history of pregnancy tests


About Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

I'm a science writer specializing in biological sciences and animal behavior.
This entry was posted in Mammals and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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