Centre for the Social History of Health & HealthcareRisky hormones, pregnant patients and the contested science of birth defects: the rise and fall of hormone pregnancy tests in the FRG and UK, 1950-81



UK-German Funding Initiative in the Humanities, 2020-2025

This project examines, in collaboration with patient groups, the rise and fall of Primodos and other hormone pregnancy tests (HPTs). Today it may be difficult to believe that doctors ever prescribed pills as pregnancy tests. However, between the 1950s and 1980s, millions of women worldwide were given HPTs: diagnostic drugs that ruled out gestation by inducing menstrual-like bleeding (a ‘negative’ result; no bleeding implied pregnancy). HPTs were first marketed by the West German pharmaceutical company Schering AG (now Bayer) in 1950. Compositionally similar to oral contraceptives, they prefigured ‘the pill’ by about a decade. Starting in 1967, HPTs came under suspicion; initially for causing spina bifida and then for inducing miscarriage and a range of birth defects akin to those caused by thalidomide, the notorious sedative that was also used to treat morning sickness. In 1978, the British and West German parents of malformed children whose mothers had taken HPTs while pregnant organised to take legal action against Schering. Although HPTs have not been available for decades, new archival findings and scientific evidence have revitalised long dormant patient-led campaigns in Britain and Germany. Against a backdrop of persistent media interest, continuing scientific research, and resumed litigation, our project will cut through the polemic to produce at a subtler, more nuanced historical understanding of HPTs. It will also seek to better understand the West German origins of oral contraception as well as international debates over the use and regulation of drugs in pregnancy and the spectre of birth defects after thalidomide.


Dr Birgit Nemec (Universität Heidelberg)

Dr Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (University of Strathclyde)

Latest Research

‘A historical argument for regulatory failure in the case of Primodos and other “hormone pregnancy tests”’


Short Reads

‘Drug scandals and the media – the unresolved case of Primodos’

‘Risky hormones, birth defects and the business of pregnancy testing’, Part I and Part II

‘The contentious history of pregnancy test drugs: Will science find its own path to the truth?’

‘Primodos was a revolutionary oral pregnancy test. But was it safe?’

Related links

Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests
The Contested History of Hormone Pregnancy Tests
DES Daughter Network: Primodos
The Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review
Netzwerk Duogynon e.V.
Primodos: Bitter Pill
The Primodos Story
Primods: The first step towards justice
Primodos: The Secret Drug Scandal
Report of the Commission on Human Medicines’ Expert Working Group on Hormone Pregnancy Tests
SPG Law Primodos Action Group

The Vargesson Lab