Syphilis was a scary epidemic in the 16th century. One doctor made it less so.

Ask any social scientist and they'll agree: Humans are really, really, really good at having sex.

But, for as long as we've been having it, we've also been trying to prevent some of the less desirable things that sometimes come along with it — namely unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

Modern science and medical innovation give sexually-active people lots of safe and reliable options to do both, and condoms, in particular, are now extremely effective — preventing pregnancy and STIs about 98% of the time when they're used correctly.


Getting to this point wasn't a quick process though. It involved centuries of trial and error, some terrible ideas (two words: dung sponges), and some serious medical breakthroughs.

A condom from 1813 that might be a bit beyond its expiration date. Image via Lund University Historical Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

Condoms can be traced back to about 3,000 B.C.

According to Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete and his wife, Pasiphaë, used a goat's bladder as a barrier during sex, after several of Minos' mistresses died from the "scorpions and serpents" in his semen.

Over the next several thousand years, Greek, Roman, New Guinea, Chinese, and Japanese civilizations developed and used their own condom variations for women and men using linen, animal bladders, intestines, or a combination of the three. While evidence of condom use continued to appear in art and literature for hundreds of years, it took until the 16th century for a doctor to apply scientific methods to test their effectiveness.

That doctor was Gabriel Fallopius, and his work greatly advanced the human understanding of reproductive health.

An etching of Gabriel Fallopius. Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn't written a musical about his mostly-unknown legacy yet, but he absolutely could. Image via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.

By his early-thirties, Fallopius was already considered one of the greatest anatomical researchers of the time. He studied the muscles of the head, the workings of the inner ear, and the nerves and muscles of the human eye. He disproved the theory that the penis entered the uterus during sex. He proved the existence of the hymen in women and discovered the tubes (now called fallopian tubes) connecting the uterus to the ovaries. He reportedly coined the word "vagina" and was the first to describe the clitoris.

With an extensive knowledge of reproduction and biology, Fallopius turned his attention toward the prevention of STIs — namely, syphilis.

"A Harlot's Progress," a famous 17th century etching by William Hogarth featuring a fictional British prostitute, Moll Hackabout, dying of syphilis. Image via The British Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

By the 16th century, syphilis infections had reached epidemic levels across western Europe. Early stage sufferers would endure rashes, joint pains, and fever. Late stage sufferers could go blind, experience heart problems, mental disorders, nerve problems, and eventually, die. Even worse, men and women were carrying the disease unknowingly, contracting it and then passing it on again without ever showing symptoms until they were past the point of treatment. Women of childbearing age were at an added risk because they could pass their infection on to their unborn children, causing birth defects, such as deformed noses, misshapen teeth, blindness, and deafness.

Fallopius and his contemporaries knew enough about syphilis to know that it was transmitted through sexual contact. He further deduced that a barrier preventing the genitals from touching directly during sex could reduce the risk of exposure.

The solution? A thin linen sheath soaked in herbs and unnamed chemicals and then dried.

Men, Fallopius surmised, could wear the sheath during sex — reportedly tied with a ribbon — and potentially prevent infection.

It was a fascinating and simple idea. The next step was proving it worked.

In what is considered to be one of the first historical examples of a clinical trial, Fallopius recruited 1,100 men to test out a sheath during sex.

Gabriel Fallopius describes some of his discoveries to the Cardinal Duke of Ferrara. Painting by Francis James Barraud. Image via Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons.

The results were astonishing: not one single participant reported contracting syphilis while using the sheath.

In a book about the experiment published two years after his death, Fallopius reported on his findings: "I tried the experiment [the use of condoms] on 1,100 men, and I call immortal God to witness that not one of them was infected."

Unlike a modern clinical trial, which would confirm patient reports with tests, Fallopius had to trust his participants to tell the truth. Still, the trial was a major breakthrough in STI prevention — and in our collective understanding of the transmission of this deadly disease.

Centuries later, the condom continues to evolve.

Simple, portable, and life-saving. Image via iStock.

Linen and animal intestine sheaths have been replaced with latex, polyurethane or polyisoprene. There are female condoms and condoms of all sizes and shapes for men. They are designed to improve pleasure for both partners, made increasingly thin with ridges, ripples, and other pleasurable accoutrements. Best of all, they're inexpensive, readily available, and easily transportable.

Philanthropist Bill Gates is so convinced of the importance of condom use in aiding sexual wellness in developing countries that, in 2013, he awarded grants to designers who could make an effective condom that doesn't limit sexual enjoyment. The winning design, an ultra-sensitive sheath made partly from bovine collagen, is awaiting approval from the FDA.

Condoms are far from perfect, but when used correctly by consenting partners, they give people more autonomy and control over their bodies.

And while there have been many innovations beyond what he ever dreamed of, we can collectively thank Gabriel Fallopius for his work in helping the science along to where it is today.

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Women around the world are constantly bombarded by traditional and outdated societal expectations when it comes to how they live their lives: meet a man, get married, buy a home, have kids.

Many of these pressures often come from within their own families and friend circles, which can be a source of tension and disconnect in their lives.

Global skincare brand SK-II created a new campaign exploring these expectations from the perspective of four women in four different countries whose timelines vary dramatically from what their mothers, grandmothers, or close friends envision for them.

SK-II had Katie Couric meet with these women and their loved ones to discuss the evolving and controversial topic of marriage pressure and societal expectations.

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"What happens when dreams clash with expectations? We're all supposed to hit certain milestones: a degree, marriage, a family," Couric said before diving into conversation with the "young women who are defining their own lives while navigating the expectations of the ones who love them most."

Maluca, a musician in New York, explains that she comes from an immigrant family, which comes with the expectation that she should live the "American Dream."

"You come here, go to school, you get married, buy a house, have kids," she said.

Her mother, who herself achieved the "American Dream" with hard work and dedication when she came to the United States, wants to see her daughter living a stable life.

"I'd love for her to be married and I'd love her to have a big wedding," she said.

Chun Xia, an award-winning Chinese actress who's outspoken about empowering other young women in China, said people question her marital status regularly.

"I'm always asked, 'Don't you want to get married? Don't you want to start a family and have kids like you should at your age?' But the truth is I really don't want to at this point. I am not ready yet," she said.

In South Korea, Nara, a queer-identifying artist, believes her generation should have a choice in everything they do, but her mother has a different plan in mind.

SK-II

"I just thought she would have a job and meet a man to get married in her early 30s," Nara's mom said.

But Nara hopes she can one day marry her girlfriend, even though it's currently illegal in her country.

Her mother, however, still envisions a different life for her daughter. "Deep in my heart, I hope she will change her mind one day," she said.

Maina, a 27-year-old Japanese woman, explains that in her home country, those who aren't married by the time they're 25 to 30, are often referred to as "unsold goods."

Her mom is worried about her daughter not being able to find a boyfriend because she isn't "conventional."

"I really want her to find the right man and get married, to be seen as marriage material," she said.

After interviewing the women and their families, Couric helped them explore a visual representation of their timelines, which showcased the paths each woman sees her life going in contrast with what her relatives envision.

SK-II

"For each young woman, two timelines were created. One represents the expectations. The other, their aspirations," Couric explained. "There's often a disconnect between dreams and expectations. But could seeing the difference lead to greater understanding?"

The women all explored their timelines, which included milestones like having "cute babies," going back to school, not being limited by age, and pursuing dreams.

By seeing their differences side-by-side, the women and their families were able to partake in more open dialogue regarding the expectations they each held.

One of the women's mom's realized her daughter was lucky to be born during a time when she has the freedom to make non-traditional choices.

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"It looks like she was born in the right time to be free and confident in what she wants to do," she said.

"There's a new generation of women writing their own rules, saying, 'we want to do things our way,' and that can be hard," Couric explained.

The video ends with the tagline: "Forge your own path and choose the life you want; Draw your own timeline."

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