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When you think of getting a “semen analysis,” you most likely imagine going to a clinic, being handed a cup, and asked to get down with yourself in a private room. After that, your sample is taken by a random person in scrubs who uses a microscope to do some kind of technical magic and report a bunch of data. As surprising as it may seem, it wasn’t always like this. This article offers you a window into how people of the past understood male fertility, semen, and sperm.
Thousands of years ago, when togas and chariots were actual things people used for clothing and transportation (not just Halloween costumes and frat parties), magnification capabilities were pretty sparse. Most ideas about sperm were based solely on what people could see in front of them. Many different groups of people understood that fertility was a condition that varied among men and women. Because women bore children, fertility was more attributed to the female anatomy. But theories about male fertility certainly existed.
For example, Ancient Egyptians believed that sperm originated in the bones of a man. Because bones were white (and so was semen), Egyptians were under the impression that all white-colored parts of the child born were made solely with the bone of the man – eyes, teeth, and internal bones. Ancient Romans thought that both men and women produced semen. The “strength” of the woman’s or the man’s semen would determine the sex of the child. If both were strong, a boy would be born; if both were weak, a girl would be born; and if one were weak or strong, the stronger semen would win out.
Obviously, with current technology, we have determined that sperm doesn’t originate in the bones of a man, and the strength of a man’s semen has nothing to do with the gender of their child. But, the way in which these communities attempted to understand what was happening during sex and childbirth is really a testament to their brilliance. In truth, these are the first semen analyses. They may not have numbers, but they definitely used logic where technology was lacking. We give them an “A” for effort.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek
Although science and biology advanced after ancient times, no human (on record) was able to see actual sperm cells until 1677. Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a master craftsman of drapery, politics, and, well, lens making. Van Leeuwenhoek developed a unique method to produce more focused lenses to incorporate in microscopes. These self-invented microscopes had the capability to see the threading of the cloth Van Leeuwenhoek sold, and living cells. According to letters Van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the British Royal Society (Van Leeuwenhoek never published any written work on his findings), he discovered aquatic microorganisms (infusoria), bacteria, and individual parts of a cell with his microscopes.
In 1677, Van Leeuwenhoek was able to view sperm cells from two semen samples: his own, and his student apprentice, Johan Ham (imagine what an awkward day at work that must have been). After viewing spermatozoa in both samples, Van Leeuwenhoek wrote another letter to the Royal Society describing what he saw: I “observed a multitude of ‘animalcules,’ less than a millionth the size of a coarse grain of sand and with thin, undulating tails.” Van Leeuwenhoek’s “animalcules” description implied his belief that each cell held a smaller version of a human, and when born, would grow into a normal sized person. In addition to the shape and quantity of cells, Van Leeuwenhoek also observed that these small creatures were motile.
Van Leeuwenhoek included a sketch of what he saw in his letter to the Royal Society. This sketch, depicted here, is nearly spot on. Van Leeuwenhoek acknowledged that all the sperm cells he saw weren’t identical. There were different shapes (morphology), moving tails (motility), still tails. This drawing, along with Van Leeuwenhoek’s accompanying letter that included all his observations provided a basis for how semen would be analyzed and understood for generations to come. Van Leeuwenhoek’s analysis of Johan Ham’s semen sample and his own is, truly, the first semen analysis on record. Check out this podcast to learn more about Van Leeuwenhoek and his
Now: What do clinics actually do with a semen sample?
After collecting a semen sample at a clinic, most men do not follow their sample through analysis. This process is usually done behind closed doors, and results are reported a few days later. Although technology has certainly advanced in every regard, the way in which a semen sample is analyzed in a clinic or lab is, for the most part, the same thing Van Leeuwenhoek did in 1677: microscopy. Essentially, technicians take a small portion of the sample you produced to look at under a scope and measure unique parameters such as morphology, motility, and concentration.
Methods for microscopic analysis can vary, however. Some labs use a CASA (computer-aided semen analysis), which is a semi-automated computerized machine that gives technicians a zoomed in view of sperm cells on a computer monitor. CASAs can measure thousands of sperm cells in minutes, if not seconds. At other places, technicians look through very specialized microscopes to note sperm count and possibly, motility percentage. As you can imagine, this method is certainly more taxing and variable from technician to technician. Either way, these parameters are recorded and ported into a report that is made available to patients.
Other parameters such as volume, pH level, viscosity, liquefaction time, fructose, presence of white blood cells, and vitality are also included in semen analysis reports. Read our article Understand Your Semen Analysis to learn more about these parameters. Although Van Leeuwenhoek didn’t necessarily understand that there were other more complicated measurements to record about sperm, he did give future generations the ability to focus in and begin to understand male fertility. Thanks, Anton (and Johan Ham).
Gordon, Andrew Hunt & Schwabe, Calvin W. The Quick And The Dead: Biomedical Theory In Ancient Egypt, Brill 2004.
Prathima, T., S. Ranjani, and N. Pandiyan. “From the Pages of History: History of Semen Analysis.” Chettinad Health City Medical Journal 4.1 (2015): 63-64. Chettinad Super Speciality Hospital. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.