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In history of birth control, a male influence

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2003 - Winter


Although birth control is widely viewed as a women’s issue, men have played a large, if unrecognized, role in reproductive rights, Andrea Tone, Ph.D., professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said at a History of Medicine and Science lecture in December. “If you examine sources not usually considered vital to the history of birth control—arrest records, credit reports, trial transcripts, patent applications, post office records, military investigations, FTC and FDA records and men’s letters—you encounter a cast of characters who are not only fundamental to the history of modern contraception, but who are also often men,” said Tone, author of Devices and Desires, a history of contraception from 1873 to 1973.

Among those men was Julius Schmid, who, in 1883, found a use for animal intestines beyond making sausages. He did what Europeans had been doing since the Renaissance and turned the delicate but impermeable membranes into condoms. To skirt laws against such devices, condoms and diaphragms were marketed as “French goods and medicines.”

Late-19th-century physicians favored condoms as an effective means of birth control. And, letters of that time reveal, contraception was on the minds of husbands as well as wives. “Men discussed how anxious they were to protect their wives’ health and welfare from the toll of uninterrupted childbearing,” Tone said, “and they worried how they, as breadwinners, could afford to feed another mouth.”

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