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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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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