We’re not the first site to put this 1954 Wallace Kirkland photo online. In fact, it’s been bouncing around the Internet for years. The estimable Maggie Koerth-Baker, for instance, posted it on Boing Boing a while back, while posing the compelling question: What was the nature of the prenatal gender-screening compound mentioned in the caption that has accompanied the picture all over the Web?
The caption referenced in Koerth-Baker’s post, and reproduced by countless blogs, reads: “Mrs. Jane Dill, four months pregnant, reacts to the news that she is carrying a baby girl, Northbrook, Ill., 1954. She had just taken a test, administered by the unidentified man in the lab coat, by placing a wafer soaked in a secret formula on her tongue.”
All well and good — except that, alas, that is not the caption that accompanied the photo when it originally ran in LIFE magazine in 1954, nor is the man in the lab coat unidentified. The caption beneath the photo in that long-ago issue of LIFE reads: “Mrs. Dill reacts happily as [Charles] Welbert shows her sex-test wafer which remains colorless, indicating second child will be girl she wants.”
(Koerth-Baker and others can certainly be pardoned for citing the former caption, as the original description of the photo, as far as we can determine, is only to be found in that 60-year-old issue of LIFE. For some reason, the original caption did not follow the picture from the printed page to the digital realm.)
The May 1954 article, meanwhile, provides more information about what’s really going on in Kirkland’s photo:
Mrs. Jane Dill . . . whooped with delight at the glad news. She had just been informed by Charles Welbert that her unborn child will be a girl. “Oh, I’m so glad,” she exclaimed. “I have one little girl already. Now I’ll have two.”
But was Welbert right? Nobody can be sure until August, when Baby Dill is born. [Note: “Baby Dill” was, indeed, a girl. — Ed.] Welbert, a Frenchman, is in the U.S. to promote a sex-prediction test devised by Jean Reisman. In 30,000 cases in France, claim Welbert and Reisman, the test was 98% accurate. Their statistics have not been subjected to impartial analysis, but the chance that the test might really work has brought Welbert U.S. customers by the hundreds.
The test, now being marketed mostly by mail, seems amazingly simple. A tiny paper wafer soaked with a secret chemical formula is placed on the mother’s tongue for 15 seconds to absorb a sample of her saliva. Then it is mailed — with a $5 fee — to Welbert who adds another chemical. If the wafer turns purple, it means male hormones have been detected. The baby will be a boy. A colorless wafer: a girl.
Most scientists are profoundly skeptical. No previous test — whether based on the moon and stars, on X-rays of the fetus or on examination of the mother’s eyes, blood, tears, shape of abdomen or samples of the fluid surrounding the fetus itself — has ever proved to be both accurate and safe.
Ultimately, though, we’re not especially interested in whether or not Reisman’s test was scientifically legit. We don’t know, for example, if the process he devised was ever peer-reviewed. Instead, we’re posting Kirkland’s photo — and the text of the article in LIFE — for two reasons. First, to correct some inaccuracies that have been out there for a while regarding the photograph, and the people in it.
Second, we’re publishing this for the simple reason that it’s a marvelous, memorable, enormously enjoyable picture. It has energy to spare, of course, and beyond Mrs. Dill’s near-manic delight there is the evident good will — or is it self-satisfaction? — in the hint we see of Welbert’s grin.
Maybe today’s home pregnancy tests, as remarkable and welcome as they are, reliably generate this sort of over-the-top reaction. But somehow, we doubt it.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com