The History of IVF


As colorful and lively as the babies themselves

The story sounds like one that Hollywood producers would create, not one for the medical journals. But it is our story, the story of IVF in the United States — one that marks the beginning in a long lineage of babies born through IVF and making their mark on this great nation.

In the mid 1800’s, scientists discovered that pregnancies occurred from a combination of sperm and eggs. Prior to that time, it was not understood why the semen caused conception and what the woman produced that caused pregnancy.

Shortly after the discovery, a physician named Dr. Sims at the Women’s Hospital in New York performed fresh intrauterine inseminations however was able to cause a single pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage. Fertility treatment mostly consisted of gynecologic surgery at that time.

In 1884, Dr. William Pancoast in Philadelphia performed the first donor insemination using sperm from the medical student voted “best looking” in his class. It was anonymous, and both the husband and wife weren’t informed that a donor was being used until years later. Luckily, the husband was elated, but this dishonesty and lack of informed consent would not be acceptable today.

In the early 1900’s, much research was done on hormones and how they related to fertility. The first infertility clinic was opened in Massachusetts in 1926.

In 1934, Gregory Pincus performed IVF-like research on rabbits, but was fired from Harvard due to his controversial research. Although Pincus didn’t succeed, his top researcher, Menkin, was hired by Dr. Rock in New York and began human IVF research. Down the street at Columbia Hospital, Dr Landrum Shattles used the Rock-Menkin protocols to duplicate the experiments in 1951.

At Baltimore’s Hospital in 1965, Dr. Jones worked with English native Dr. Edwards to fertilize the first human egg in vitro. Back in England in 1968, Dr. Edwards joined Dr. Patrick Steptoe in the lab and used laparoscopic surgery to retrieve an egg and fertilize it in vitro. Together they published the results in the journal “Nature” in 1969.

It is important to understand that political opinion of IVF and governmental regulations of research were still evolving. More Americans were accepting of the concept but the Pope was adamantly opposed.

On September 12, 1972 at 8:00 a.m., a surgery was undertaken at a hospital in Brooklyn. Dr. William Sweeny retrieved five eggs and the husband took them in a taxi five miles across town to give them to Dr. Shettles at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital.

The husband went into a collection room and produced a fresh ejaculate to be used to fertilize the eggs. By 2:00 p.m., the hospital chairman learned about the experiment and forbade the embryo transfer back to the mother.

The husband was informed at 4:00 p.m. that evening, and the wife was informed by 9:00 p.m. while she was still in recovery from surgery. This would have been the first case of IVF with embryo transfer but was stopped prematurely.

Three years later (1975) in England, Dr Edwards and Steptoe announce the first successful pregnancy created from IVF; however, it ended in an ectopic pregnancy. But by 1978, the first successful live birth from IVF was announced by Dr. Edwards and Steptoe in England.

Lesley Brown gave birth to a daughter, Louise Joy Brown, who was healthy in every way. While the birth of a test tube baby shocked the watching world, it had been a century in the making.
After wading through more regulatory hurdles, the first US IVF clinic was opened by the Jones doctors in Virginia.

The race was on but Australia got to be the second country to announce a test tube baby (in 1980) and the US was finally able to announce the birth of Elizabeth Carr in 1981.

What happened after that would be described as “viral” today. Fertility drugs were improved, IVF egg retrievals began to be performed vaginally instead of by laparoscopy, and ICSI (sperm injection) allowed men with low sperm to become fathers.

Embryo transfers slowly moved from day one to day three. Most often embryo transfers are performed on day five as embryology labs are better suited for culturing embryos safely and for longer periods of time.

Embryo biopsy and “live-cam” that provides 24-hour footage is now available to monitor cell division and to predict the healthiest embryos – all in an attempt to improve pregnancy rates and lower multiple pregnancies.

Our center, the Reproductive Science Center of the San Francisco Bay Area (an Integramed partner), staked its claim in history by being the second center to have a live birth from a frozen embryo in 1983. And recently, we reported a birth from an 18 year old frozen embryo, making it the second oldest in history to cause a live birth!

The history of IVF is as colorful as the babies that have been born – and the future is just as bright.

The timeline used in accounting the above history of IVF was adapted from the PBS film, The American Experience: test tube babies, magazine articles and personal communication in lectures at the ASRM annual meetings.

Mother kissing little baby at home

Breaking Barriers, Building Families

Since 1983, we have pioneered fertility treatment for every kind of family. We want to help you achieve your dream of having a baby.

Request appointment