Check that Temperature! Rhythm Method, Thermometers, and the Gynodate

unnamedSex, contraception, and reproduction: if you think those are topics best avoided in a museum, think again! Next week, the Dittrick hosts its annual Percy Skuy Lecture on the History of Contraception, and this time, it’s all about temperature. Hot under the collar? It might be your cycle! Leo J. Latz, a Chicago doctor, first championed the Rhythm Method (based on work by Ogino-Knaus) in the United States. In 1932 Latz published The Rhythm of Sterility and Fertility in Women, which sold over 200,000 copies by 1942; he contended that the “findings of modern science disclose a rational, natural, and ethical means to space births and to regulate intelligently the number of children.” This coming Thursday, April 9th, come hear about the use of thermometers and the rhythm method to control fertility–lecture by Dianna Day, followed by a reception upstairs in the contraception gallery The event is FREE, but please do RSVP to ensure a seat: http://artsci.case.edu/dittrick/upcoming-events/ Want to learn more about contraception’s contested history? Here are some tidbits from our archive–and we hope to see you next week!

The-Rhythm-1934-coverRHYTHM METHOD
How did it work? Latz advised avoiding intercourse for eight days: for women with a regular menstrual cycle, this began five days before ovulation, with an extra three days tacked on for safety’s sake. As a devout Roman Catholic, Latz advanced this method of fertility control as more in line with Church teachings. He published pamphlets on rhythm for priests to distribute to couples, and parish bingo games gave out his book as a prize. Many shared Leo Latz’s faith in the science behind the Ogino-Knaus findings. But applying them to birth control proved not so simple, nor straightforward. Calculating the time of ovulation can still be tricky. It varies from woman to woman, and a woman can ovulate at a different time each month. Stress, illness, or interruptions in normal routine can also alter a woman’s cycle. Despite these uncertainties, the Ogino-Knaus method caught on, as evidenced by the proliferation of rhythm method calculators after 1930. Companies produced graphs, wheels, calendars, and slide rules, which cost from 10¢ to $5. In 1955 over 65% of Catholic women surveyed said they used Rhythm… And of course, given that is was a private means of controlling fertility, many more likely took advantage.

Ironically, Leo Latz felt biting backlash for all his efforts to bring an acceptable form of contraception to Catholics. Some felt he went too far. When Latz published The Rhythm in 1932 he served on the medical faculty of Loyola University. According to Leslie Tentler, writing in Catholics and Contraception: An American History (2004), Latz “was abruptly fired from that position in August of 1934,” and this action “was almost certainly a direct result of Latz’s prominent association with the cause of rhythm.” In 1935 Latz confessed to his friend Father Joseph Reiner, S.J., that no one “knew the anguish and dishonor I …suffered, when people said: ‘I heard you were thrown out of the University.” –Jim Edmonson (see original post here)

gynodate 2009-004-frontGYNODATE
A later variant of rhythm calculator was known as the “Gynodate.” Swiss clockmaker Jaquet introduced the “Gynodate” in 1958. It combined a regular alarm clock and a gauge to calculate the “safe period” as directed by Hermann Knaus. Jaquet claimed it “indispensable for every woman for natural birth control.” The Museum of contraception and abortion in Vienna, Austria, had the associated ephemera (pictured here). The thing that we like best about the “gynodate” is its stylish concealment of its function. Looks like a nice, if simple, alarm clock when the Gynodate 2 high resdecorative bezel is closed. But lift the hinged cover and you reveal adjustable dials to set for the onset and end of the monthly period, and hence gauge the days of fertility. It’s reminiscent of oral contraceptive dispensers in the form of lipstick containers or dialpak dispensers disguised as facial powder compacts…Certainly not the first, nor the last, time that designers strived to camouflage the purpose of a medical device. Sometimes this was done to conceal an object’s function from unwitting patients (as in the case of medical furniture in the 1880s), while at other times it was done to safeguard personal dignity, as in the concealment of contraceptive purpose of the object at hand, the “gynodate”. –Jim Edmonson (see original post here)

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Brandy Schillace

Historian and author Brandy Schillace, PhD, is Editor for Medhum Fiction | Daily Dose, Research Associate and Public Engagement at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, as well as Managing Editor of the medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.

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