The demand for pregnancy testing: the Aschheim–Zondek reaction, diagnostic versatility, and laboratory services in 1930s Britain

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The Aschheim–Zondek reaction is generally regarded as the first reliable hormone test for pregnancy and as a major product of the ‘heroic age’ of reproductive endocrinology. Invented in Berlin in the late 1920s, by the mid 1930s a diagnostic laboratory in Edinburgh was performing thousands of tests every year for doctors around Britain. In her classic history of antenatal care, sociologist Ann Oakley claimed that the Aschheim–Zondek test launched a ‘modern era’ of obstetric knowledge, which asserted its superiority over that of pregnant women. This article reconsiders Oakley’s claim by examining how pregnancy testing worked in practice. It explains the British adoption of the test in terms less of the medicalisation of pregnancy than of clinicians’ increasing general reliance on laboratory services for differential diagnosis. Crucially, the Aschheim–Zondek reaction was a test not directly for the fetus, but for placental tissue. It was used, less as a yes-or-no test for ordinary pregnancy, than as a versatile diagnostic tool for the early detection of malignant tumours and hormonal deficiencies believed to cause miscarriage. This test was as much a product of oncology and the little-explored world of laboratory services as of reproductive medicine.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-247
Number of pages15
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Issue numberPart B
Early online date1 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2014


  • Aschheim–Zondek test
  • pregnancy hormone
  • reproductive endocrinology
  • diagnostic laboratory
  • clinical pathology
  • Edinburgh

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