The Rest Is History: The Man Behind IVF in America
If you can’t handle ambiguity, don’t read this column.
At the same moment that millions of unwanted children are being carved up for their constituent organs and sold to the highest bidder because their mother does not want them, other women—and men—are going to extraordinary lengths to have a baby. Almost all the means involve in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Dr. Howard Jones was the man most responsible for bringing IVF to the United States. He died on July 31, 2015, at the age of 104.
A few months before his death, he published a memoir, In Vitro Fertilization Comes to America: Memoir of a Medical Breakthrough. To understand the history of IVF from the point of view of those who support it, it is instructive to read this book.
In his memoir, Jones notes with satisfaction that IVF passed through Schopenhauer’s three stages of natural progression toward the revelation of truth: “First it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Jones writes:
Not so long ago, pregnancy in a woman without fallopian tubes, or fatherhood for a man with hardly any sperm, or the birth of a healthy child to parents carrying deadly mutations would have been regarded like biblical miracles. Today, however, they are taken for granted, and that is as it should be as progress rolls forward over one problem to the next. Conception by IVF is not yet the norm, and may never be, but it is sufficiently common that it scarcely raises an eyebrow today.
On the opening page, Jones gives particular credit to Dr. Robert G. Edwards, the English doctor who brought about Louise Brown, the world’s first in vitro baby.
Edwards had been introduced to the field by M.C. Chang, who worked at Gregory Pincus’s Worcester Foundation in Massachusetts, conducting experiments on rabbit embryos. Pincus is remembered as the genius behind the oral contraceptive. In the 1940s the idea of fertilization occurring anywhere other than in a woman’s body was the stuff of horror fiction. But Planned Parenthood enabled Pincus to found the Worcester Foundation, and to hire Chang, and Chang’s research was published somewhere and Edwards read it . . . and the rest is history.
Howard Jones’s work embodied the staggering pace of scientific and cultural change that characterized the modern age. His life makes it possible to understand how the secular worship of progress could be so infectious. His may have been the last generation innocent enough to believe in science for science’s sake.
As a boy in Baltimore, Jones rode around in a horse and buggy, accompanying his physician father while he made house calls. But modern medicine was waiting in the wings. Jones was over 70 when he delivered his first IVF baby in 1981. By the time he died, there was strong demand to include coverage for IVF in national health insurance policies—something he regarded favorably.
In 1940, Howard married Georgeanna Seegar, a fellow graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School, in what must have been one of history’s most significant physician alliances.
While still a medical student, Georgeanna had shown that the placenta was the source of the pregnancy hormone, HCG, a foundational discovery. She was only 26 years old when, in 1939, she was appointed the first faculty member of the newly created gynecology department at Johns Hopkins, a position she held for 39 years. A more impressive resume cannot be imagined.
While Howard sewed up soldiers in Patton’s Third Army during World War II, his wife worked to solve the riddles of infertility. Not much attention had been paid to female endocrinology before Georgeanna. She made medical history by learning what causes ovulation, how to know when it’s happening, what hormones sustain a pregnancy, and so much more that is fundamental to human reproductive medicine today.
Ponder the ambiguity of this: Georgeanna Jones discovered the chemistry that first made possible confirmation of a pregnancy without “killing the rabbit.” A blood test we take for granted, one that helps save pregnancies from threatened miscarriage, exists because of the work of the “mother” of IVF. Her pioneer research also underlies the high-tech methods that today help faithful young Catholic couples regulate their fertility according to the directives of Humanae Vitae.
Foreshadowing the Future
After the war, Howard Jones helped pioneer research on cervical cancer in situ, then migrated to the surgical repair, and later, endocrinological treatment of genital anomalies.
In the 1950’s he studied malformations of the genital tract, and became an authority in the field of hermaphroditism. By the 70s his clinical team of surgeons, endocrinologists, and psychologists was treating patients from around the world with genital anomalies. He founded the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic and by 1965 was doing sex-change operations.
When both Howard and Georgeanna were mandatorily retired from Hopkins in 1978, they were invited to Norfolk, Virginia, to help set up the reproductive health division of the just-launched Eastern Virginia Medical School. Johns Hopkins had decided to abandon transsexual surgery, and EVMS was willing to take it. That, and sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, were their only plans.
Is there such a thing as coincidence?
On July 25, 1978, the very night the Joneses were driving from Baltimore to Norfolk, Louise Brown was born in England. The next day, an enterprising reporter was the first visitor at their new house. Sitting on unopened boxes, they talked with her about the sensational news, and explained the science of in vitro fertilization to her.
As they parted, the reporter casually asked, “What would it take to do this here?”
To Jones, it was a throwaway line, to which he replied jocularly, “It would take some money!” That line made it into the newspaper the next day.
After reading the story, a woman telephoned Jones and offered as much money as it would take to start an IVF program.
She had been a patient of Georgeanna’s in Baltimore, and had been able to have a baby because of Georgeanna’s work. From the donor’s perspective, she was just passing it forward.
Within a week the Joneses and EVMC were committed to starting an IVF program. And the rest is history.
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Connie Marshner is a commentator and researcher on life and family issues in the Washington, D.C., area.