Tag Archives: popular lore

About Those Dead Rabbits …


(Did you notice I had a “history” section? It’s not all about writing. Except that I tend to write historical fiction …)

Nowadays, women pee on a stick. It used to be that they had to go to a doctor with a urine sample, and it was sent to a lab, and some rabbit was mysteriously killed or saved. So the phrase, up through the 1970s at least, was “the rabbit died,” meaning someone was pregnant. (And thus the title of the 1978 movie, The Rabbit Test)

Having just received my copy of The Modern Home Physician, A New Encyclopedia of Medical Knowledge, Illustrated with Two Hundred and Thirty-Two Photographs and Nearly Seven Hundred Drawings Made Expressly for This Work, edited by Victor Robinson (Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1938), I went cruising.

In checking the pages on this big puppy (781), I found the Zondek-Aschheim Reaction test, devised in 1927 to give women an accurate and fairly early idea if they were pregnant or not. Before then, it was all symptoms and guesswork. False pregnancies happened out of stress.

The original test was done on immature mice, but a more convenient variation worked out some time between 1927 and 1938 used a female rabbit, inject intravenously with the urine. (You’d think that would kill right there, but the hCG hormone is only in pregnant woman’s urine).

Actually, the test didn’t kill anything. That’s popular misunderstanding of how the test worked.

[Bunny lovers, go away now.]

But to see the changes in the rabbit’s ovaries brought on by the hCG, the lab techs had to go inside. Since anesthesia and post-op on a big rodent seemed silly to the labs, all the rabbits died before being examined.

[Bunny people, you can come back now.]

A little time on Wikipedia turned up a bit more on the phrase “rabbit test,” which doesn’t seem to have been used until 1949, however popular it became. I would guess that “the rabbit died” idea is no earlier than the 1950s. Before then, rather than being cutesy about it, a woman just said the test was positive or negative. It seems right for the neo-Victorian Fifties love of euphemism.

Just an odd bit of everyday life that’s been mostly forgotten, and often displaced in anachronism by writers (no test in 1912, and no phrase in 1943). It’s the sort of thing I love discovering.