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Risky hormones, pregnant patients, and the controversial research on congenital malformations

The Rise and Fall of Hormonal Pregnancy Tests in the Federal Republic of Germany and Great Britain, 1950-1981

Risky Hormones

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Risky Hormones, Pregnant Patients and the Controversial Research on Congenital Malformations

This project examines the rise and fall of hormone pregnancy tests (HPTs) in collaboration with patient groups.

From today's perspective, it may be hard to imagine physicians ever prescribing hormone tablets as pregnancy tests, but HPTs were actually used by millions of women worldwide from the 1950s to the 1980s. Identical in composition to today's birth control pills, HPTs triggered menstrual bleeding, the absence of which indicated pregnancy. Beginning in 1967, HPTs came increasingly under suspicion as being responsible for a number of congenital malformations similar to those caused by the notorious sedative thalidomide. In 1978, British and West German parents of children with malformations whose mothers had taken HPTs during pregnancy joined forces to take legal action against the manufacturer, Schering AG.

Meanwhile, HPTs have been off the market for decades, but archival discoveries have recently reignited campaigns, as well as legal and scientific investigations.

The goal of our project is to gain a more nuanced historical understanding of HPTs in order to gain deeper insight into the West German origins of the birth control pill, as well as international debates on drug use during pregnancy and the spectrum malformations 'after thalidomide'.

Project info

Funding Institution: DFG and AHRC

Project Management: Prof. Dr. Birgit Nemec, Dr. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn

Collaborators: Sophia Wagemann, Anja Suter

Student assistant: Jennise Krusche

Duration: 2020 - 2025


Univ.-Prof. Dr. Birgit Nemec

Co-director of the Institute for the History of Medicine and Ethics in Medicine, Chair for the History of Medicine

Jennise Krusche

Student assistant