Howard and Georgeanna Jones

Howard and Georgeanna Jones

Howard Jones, Jr., who with his wife and long-time research partner Georgeanna Seegar Jones achieved this country’s first birth as a result of in vitro fertilization, died at the age of 104 on July 31. Obituaries in the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and elsewhere chronicled the many “firsts” of his long career.

Jones is indeed memorable for many reasons. In addition to the obvious ones, I have always admired how, at the age of 67, he “reinvented himself,” as fellow assisted reproduction pioneer Alan DeCherney put it, as “a world leader” in IVF. How many people get to create pathbreaking new careers for themselves in their late sixties? And the fact that he and his wife appeared to have a true partnership of equals is also impressive. Not many men of his generation would have been willing to adjust their own careers in order to support the work of their wives, but he was.

In fact, it’s impossible to talk about Howard Jones without talking about his wife, Georgeanna Seegar Jones. They courted while in medical school at Johns Hopkins and married in 1940. During World War II, when he served as a surgeon,  he worried that her obligations to their children and her parents were stifling her career. “It is not right,” he wrote her from the front in June of 1945, “that you who are so talented should have to struggle with the necessities of living for a family, but perhaps after the war this can be righted.”

He was as good as his word. Having trained in surgery before going to war, when he came home he completed an abbreviated second residency in gynecology in order to be able to collaborate with Georgeanna. She became an eminent reproductive endocrinologist and in 1970 was the first woman elected president of the American Fertility Society (now the American Society for Reproductive Medicine). He became a successful gynecological surgeon. From the late 1940s to 1978, when mandatory retirement policies forced them from their decades-long professional home, they shared their personal and professional lives.

Although they were obliged to leave Hopkins in 1978, the Joneses were definitely not ready to hang up their white coats. Norfolk physician Mason Andrews made sure they didn’t have to. Andrews, who had been a resident at Hopkins with Howard, was a prominent obstetrician/gynecologist and a savvy local political and civic leader who had been the moving spirit behind the creation of the Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1973. Deciding that one of the best ways to bring visibility to the fledgling school would be to recruit a few high profile faculty members, he persuaded the Joneses to come to Norfolk with a promise that they could focus on any area of research they chose.

As Howard Jones told the story later, even as they were on the road to their new home near Norfolk, he and Georgeanna hadn’t yet decided what research they wanted to pursue. Arriving a day after British embryologist Robert Edwards and his gynecologist collaborator Patrick Steptoe announced the birth of Louise Brown on July 25, 1978 – the world’s first baby born as a result of IVF – they found reporters waiting for them with one major question: “Could a “test tube” baby be born in the U.S.?” Sure, he remembered saying, offhandedly. All it would take would be some money. Reading this, one of Georgeanna’s former patients agreed to provide seed funding.

But how offhand was his comment, really? Georgeanna was one of the most distinguished reproductive endocrinologists in the nation. She was as prepared as anyone – maybe more so than most – to understand the intricacies of IVF. And it isn’t as if both of them didn’t already have direct knowledge of the technology. In 1965 the couple had mentored Robert Edwards himself just as he was turning his own attention to human IVF. Then a forty year-old Cambridge researcher, Edwards had written the Joneses’ friend and colleague, geneticist Victor McKusick, for help. By this time, Edwards had succeeded in fertilizing mouse ova in vitro and wanted very much to move on to human eggs. So far, however, he had made little progress on his own. McKusick responded by asking the Joneses to host Edwards in their lab. With some funding from the Ford Foundation and McKusick’s introduction, the younger man spent six energizing weeks with Howard and Georgeanna. He later remembered that although he had not managed actually to fertilize any eggs while he was in Baltimore, he returned from this experience feeling much closer to doing so. He was right: Within four years, he and gynecologist Patrick Steptoe reported their first successful fertilizations, and soon thereafter began the program that resulted in the birth of Louise Brown.

And so, as Howard and Georgeanna Jones made their way to their new jobs in Norfolk, the success of Edwards and Steptoe had to have been on their minds. I can just imagine them talking about it as they drove to their new home. They had helped Edwards get to this point; surely they could be as successful. They also must have been confident that they could count on the support of Mason Andrews, with his enormous social capital and political skills, and the backing of the medical school, if they chose to go in a controversial research direction.

Mason Andrews and Eastern Virginia did not let them down. The Joneses encountered skepticism from a worried media: What might happen down the road? fretted the Washington Post editorial board when the couple announced plans for an IVF program. More immediately threatening was the intense opposition from anti-abortion activists, who protested and lobbied the state to keep the proposed clinic from opening. But the Joneses and Eastern Virginia remained unmoved. The anti-abortion forces lost their battle to stop the project when the Virginia legislature rejected a proposal to limit IVF research. By the time the clinic opened in the spring of 1980 more than 5,000 couples, undaunted by the $4,000 cost of treatment, had applied for slots in the program.

Elizabeth Jordan Carr was born on December 28, 1981, with Mason Andrews performing the C-section that brought her into the world. Earlier that year, Georgeanna Jones told the Washington Post that the couple’s success was made possible because Eastern Virginia gave them both “freedom and institutional backing,” two things that would have been much harder to come by at more established institutions, she believed. She was right. The opening of their clinic, however, also emboldened colleagues at several of those more established medical schools. Two University of Texas medical centers, at Houston and San Antonio, the University of Southern California, and Yale soon created their own centers, and they were later joined by the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt. Many, many others followed. The rest, as they say, is history.