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SOS Rhino : In the News : From elephant dung to beaver testicles

From elephant dung to beaver testicles

  Man chronicles history of birth control techniques

Los Angeles Times

January 02. 2005 8:00AM

The elephant dung was no trouble at all. When the circus came to town, Percy Skuy simply showed up with a bucket and politely asked the keeper if he could collect a few droppings.

The mule's earwax? Now, that was a challenge. Skuy asked a friend in Mexico for advice. A few weeks later, the friend sent back photos of two ranch hands struggling to hold a mule while a third extracted a clot of wax from a hairy ear. Skuy set the greasy blob on black velvet.

Another exhibit successfully mounted in the History of Contraception Museum.

In a 40-year quest to document the science - and superstition - of family planning through the ages, Skuy has sought out weasel testicles and hairy spiders, carrot seeds, candy wrappers and a bone from an all-black cat. He has collected hundreds of IUDs and cervical caps. He has preserved the first experimental female condoms and the short-lived "cerviscope" of the 1960s, an awkward device designed to help women monitor their fertility.

It is a lonely obsession. And a frustrating one. As Skuy, a retired pharmaceutical executive, points out, "there's really no motivation to save an old contraceptive."

Still, here and there, gynecologists and patients with a sense of history have held on to favorite devices. Skuy, 72, has traveled the globe to acquire them. His collection, he says, is more than a curiosity: It's about science and sociology, about the limits of modern medicine and the ageless drama of human desire.

The artifacts "tell of a human motivation across the centuries, in different countries and different cultures, to limit family size," he said. "There are any number of museums that display fertility symbols. The story of how people tried to curb their fertility is every bit as important." Plus, he says genially, "people find it interesting."

Skuy recently donated his one-of-a-kind collection to the Dittrick Medical History Center here at Case Western Reserve University. Hundreds of contraceptives are on display in glass cases in the medical library, accessible to scholars, students and anyone curious about early IUD design or faux crocodile-skin condoms.

The story starts in 1550 B.C., with a prescription written on papyrus: "To cause that a woman should cease to conceive," moisten a bit of wool lint with honey, mix in ground dates and the tips of acacia flowers and use the sticky wad as a vaginal suppository. Like many ancient methods, this one might actually have worked: Acacia breaks down to lactic acid, a spermicide used even today.

But the earwax amulets popular in the Middle Ages? Not a chance. Still, Skuy cautions against ridiculing such folklore.

"Men today spend an inordinate amount of money on rhinoceros horns and elk antlers as aphrodisiacs," he points out. "If people can do that in the 21st century, it's easy to understand these old superstitions."

And not all was superstition. Hundreds of years before scientists understood reproduction - sperm was not observed under a microscope until 1677 - men and women invented birth control strikingly similar to modern contraceptives.

The museum documents the use of cervical caps made of lemon halves, natural sea sponges dipped in olive oil, and condoms fashioned from sheep intestine. Women in China 4,000 years ago drank mercury, which probably did sterilize them if it didn't kill them. In parts of Canada, even today, some women steep dried beaver testicles in alcohol, then drink the potion.

Skuy, who grew up in a small South African village, stumbled on his passion for birth-control products in the 1960s, when he got a job as a sales representative for Ortho Pharmaceutical in Toronto.

Ortho had just introduced one of the first birth-control pills, and made a variety of other contraceptives. The trouble was, it was a criminal offense in Canada until 1969 to promote or advertise contraceptives. And most doctors knew nothing about birth control.

So Skuy found he had to do a lot of educating - in secret. He would hide a diaphragm in his suit pocket and wander the halls of a hospital. When he came across a young doctor, he would pull him into an empty room and explain how the product worked.

In 1965, Skuy was asked to speak to a pharmacists' group about the latest methods of contraception. He opened with a few remarks on the history of birth control. That introduction was so popular, the pharmacists invited him to expand on it for a bigger crowd a few months later.

Skuy searched Ortho's archives for old birth-control prototypes to enliven his speech. He soon realized that most of what he sought had long since been tossed in the trash.

"These were truly one-of-a-kind things, and people were not saving them," Skuy said.

So he set out to do it himself.

His bosses at Ortho Pharmaceutical encouraged him. Or, at least, Skuy said upon further reflection, they never told him to stop. In 1973, he became president of the company. And everywhere he went, he put out word that he wanted contraceptives.

"I've heard every condom joke there is," he said ruefully. But many also took his hunt seriously.

Dr. Jack Lippes, who invented the IUD design known as the "Lippes Loop," donated dozens of experimental devices he had crafted in different shapes and sizes. Gynecologists the world over sent in odd devices they had removed from patients - including one IUD made from knotted fishing line. (It evidently worked, as the woman had worn it for a decade without conceiving.)

Even rival companies contributed their artifacts, once Skuy assured them that the collection was a personal passion, not a business venture. It contains no brand-name products.

Skuy scanned medical journals and newspapers for reports about curious attempts at contraception, such as the Australian boys who used candy wrappers as condoms or the British woman who used the top of a teapot as a diaphragm.

When traveling, he made a point of asking local guides about their customs.

"I would move from 'Show us the local temple,' to 'Let's go look for a family planning clinic,'" he said. "It was a priority."

Once, in India, a guide showed him a neem tree, renowned for its medicinal properties. Skuy remembered reading that Indian women used to steep branches from the tree in a special "fumigation" kettle, then stand over the steam after intercourse, hoping to prevent pregnancy. He snipped off a few branches for his museum. His wife, Elsa, a professional potter, made a ceramic replica of a fumigation kettle for the display.

As his collection grew, Skuy took it to medical conventions across Europe and Asia. Participants often tipped him off to colleagues who collected interesting devices.

Skuy displayed his collection in the lobby of Ortho's Toronto headquarters for years - never drawing a single protest, he said. After retiring in 1995, he began to consider how to make it more accessible. He chose the Dittrick center in part because it has a large collection of old medical devices, including dozens of antique obstetrical forceps.

"This museum isn't a place to go and giggle at," said Dr. Malcolm Potts, a professor of family planning at the University of California in Berkeley. "It shows how we've struggled with a variety of products over the years."

For now, the items at the Dittrick center are described with brief labels. Edmonson, the curator, plans to add more context and social history over the next few years.

Even with the bare-bones display, the collection has attracted interest. Several professors plan to build courses around the exhibit. And students wandering through the hushed reading room invariably stop to check it out.

"With all the debate over birth control these days, I thought it was a more modern issue," said Alex Vikmanis, a junior. "But it's been such a common theme throughout history, it really shouldn't be such a big deal."

Graduate student Elizabeth Salem was so taken with the exhibit, she hopes to write her dissertation about it. She's studying women's history - but rarely, she said, does the subject come alive as it does in a museum full of brutally painful, astoundingly creative or woefully ineffective contraception.

"Sometimes it's hard to picture what life was like when you're plowing through medical case histories," she said. "But when you see the objects, it's like, 'Oh, my goodness.'"

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