The Aztecs buried the placentas from girl babies under the hearth to ensure her womanly qualities. A male child's placenta was buried in as bloody a battlefield as could be found--to guarantee his courage and ferocity in war.

Western civilization puts placentas in face creams and shampoos.

The placenta--the organ through which a developing fetus is nourished--is also used for scientific purposes, to provide immune serum gamma globulins, hormones, blood fractions and other components of human tissue--for research and for use in preventing illnesses such as hepatitis.

Dr. Allan Weingold, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department of the George Washington University Medical Center, says that about 75 percent of that hospital's placentas, are collected by agents of several pharmaceutical houses. The membranes have been used for primary burn coverage, "especially for babies"; the veins in the cord are preserved and used in blood vessel grafts; and the bulk is used for extraction of hormones.

The hospital is provided with a freezer by the collectors to store the placentas and is paid $1.50 for each one to cover hospital handling costs. (When there are birth complications the placenta, which is expelled at birth, is examined in the pathology laboratory and subsequently destroyed, Weingold says.) GW also responds to requests by NIH for specific research projects.

"The placenta is a rich source for extraction of drugs, antibodies and blood," Weingold says, "and as far as I'm concerned all placentas should be used."

For the most part, however, the disposition of the placenta at obstetrical suites and pathology laboratories is shrouded in secrecy. Many hospitals when queried issue statements such as "we dispose of the placentas properly." When pressed they say this means that the placenta is ultimately destroyed in the hospital, usually incinerated.

A spokesman for a Pennsylvania company that collects placentas from hospitals and ships them to two major "and very reputable" pharmaceutical houses in Europe asked that the firm's name not be used. "We don't need publicity," the spokesman said. "What we do we consider a service to humanity . . . we only send them to the most ethical houses that use them to extract gamma globulin and blood fractions and use them for no other purposes."

Spokesmen for the Pennsylvania firm and the Washington Hospital Center which provides placentas to the firm would not use the word "sell."

The collecting company pays the Washington Hospital Center what it calls a "service fee" of 50 cents for each placenta. The pharmaceutical houses pay the collecting company an additional service fee after which virtually every hormone, chemical, blood component or genetic element is extracted from the placenta.

Traditionally, many major pharmaceutical houses that use placentas dispose of the residue by reselling it to chemical houses that subsequently process it for cosmetic firms. So-called "placental extract" has been sold in Europe for several decades in various forms ranging from "cures" for the aging process, products to restore healthy, unwrinkled skin and even as hair restorers.

By the time the placental residue is processed for sale to cosmetic manufacturers its price ranges today from $3,000 to almost $4,000 a pound. The original 50-cent or $1.50 placenta usually weighs something less than a pound.

Stephen Goode is a Chicago chemist who used to buy placental residue from the Parke Davis Pharmaceutical House until Parke Davis went "out of the blood products business" a few years ago, a spokesman for the house said. Goode now obtains whole placentas from hospitals or from collecting companies. He processes them directly for cosmetic rather than scientific use. The globulins and other components once used for scientific research are discarded. Another of his former sources was the Merieux Institut in Lyons, France, the one-time home base of Louis Pasteur and the firm that produced the new rabies vaccine now in use all over the world. Merieux is possibly the largest producer of gamma globulin in the world, says Goode. Merieux is also the eventual recipient of the placentas collected at the Washington Hospital Center, a hospital spokesman said.

Goode says he believes "there is real scientific value" in the processed placental material, although he concedes that at least some of the claims for it "are nothing but bull." Nevertheless, he cites studies in France, Russia, Germany and Switzerland that he believes demonstrate the product's curative or restorative powers. "There is more to the placenta," says Goode passionately, "than anyone would believe. It contains everything a human body needs. After all, that is its function." He says proudly that he has processed the placentas of two of his grandchildren.

Heinz Eiermann, chief of the cosmetics division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, disagrees that the processed material is valuable.

"There is no biologically active material left in those extracts, only a proteinaceous material--human placental protein. If it had anything active in it, it would have to be registered as a drug rather than a cosmetic.

"I guess the purpose is somehow to make the product distinct from someone else's."

Goode says that a number of "major" cosmetic companies use human placental material, but refused to divulge the names of any of his customers. "About 50 houses use it in the U.S.," he says, "and about 200 worldwide. I don't know of any industrialized country in the world where placentas are not collected," he said, "including Russia."

Cosmetic firms are not required to list their products' ingredients with the FDA or even to list the source of their protein components.

One company that uses human placental protein as a basis for sales is the Palm Beach Beauty Products Co. in Minneapolis.

The company manufactures a line of hair products and face creams called "Placenta Plus."

Richard Kaitz, executive vice president of the firm, buys some of the processed placenta from Goode's firm and some from another processor in New York. He pays, he says, about $3,400 a pound and uses "about 50 or 60 cents worth in a 16-ounce bottle of shampoo, about 10 percent of the product's retail cost."

GW's Weingold sees no problem at all in the use of placentas in cosmetics. "I'd rather have naturally occurring substances in shampoos than all the additivies that have been used for years," he says. He also notes that "With about 3 million placentas available every year, there is no shortage."

Women's groups have not addressed the issue, many say, although Judy Narigian of the Boston Women's Health Collective says she recalls being approached at one time by a doctor who lives in Italy who "was pushing for the rights of women to retain control of their own placentas and set up placenta banks. He felt they could confer some immunological benefits."

Weingold says that some patients have taken their placentas home with them, some saying that "they have to cook and eat them, following the natural trend. It's probably not harmful because most other species eat their placentas. But I don't consider it very appetizing."