Judy Carr is wheeled out of the hospital holding her daughter Elizabeth Carr.

More than eight years had passed since America’s first attempt at a test tube baby. Amid controversy and limitations on federal funding, the United States had languished behind while 14 other children were born in England and Australia using the new technique. That all changed on December 28, 1981, when Doctor Howard Jones stepped into a Norfolk, Virginia, conference room and uttered three magic words: “It’s a girl.”

First Efforts
Since the failed Del-Zio attempt in 1973 at one of New York’s top hospitals, in vitro fertilization (IVF) research had moved to the peripheries of American science, conducted in institutions outside the medical mainstream. One of these was the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, where two retired doctors from Johns Hopkins, Howard and Georgeanna Jones, opened an IVF clinic in March 1980. The Joneses, who had helped British scientist Robert Edwards conduct IVF back in 1965, had watched as Edwards’s work progressed. He brought the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, into the world in 1978. The Joneses wanted to match his success, and so they followed Edwards’ suggestions as to how to proceed, avoiding putting patients on fertility drugs and conducting implantation of the fertilized eggs into patients only at night. For the first year, nothing worked. The techniques were so new and untested that no one was really sure of the ideal process. Then Georgeanna Jones decided that they would need to follow their own protocol and start using fertility drugs to help stimulate egg production after all.

The First Pregnancy
From the opening of their clinic, the Joneses had been besieged by applicants wanting to have children. One of these was a Massachusetts teacher named Judy Carr. Judy was considered a good candidate because her fallopian tubes had been removed, so there was no possibility of her getting pregnant the old-fashioned way. She was also young, in her late 20s, and thought to have a better chance of becoming pregnant. In March 1981, Judy started taking the fertility drug Pergonal, which required her to drive 20 minutes to a hospital three times a day for the injections. After three weeks of this, Judy flew to Norfolk, where she had some eggs surgically removed. To everyone’s surprise, they started growing very rapidly, forcing a quick trip from her husband down to Norfolk to provide the sperm. On April 17, Judy’s 28th birthday, a fertilized egg was implanted in her uterus as clinic staffers sang “Happy Birthday.” A few weeks later, Judy took a test that confirmed she was pregnant with America’s first test tube baby.

The First Birth
Fearful of too much publicity and aware that an IVF pregnancy in France had ended in miscarriage, the Joneses decided to keep Judy’s identity under wraps. Howard gave a press conference announcing the pregnancy but stating that personal details would be kept secret. Meanwhile, Judy, who remained in Norfolk for the last month of her pregnancy, stayed in a condominium under an assumed name. The planning worked, and the media never got wind of her identity. But the Joneses had other things to worry about. Ultrasounds revealed that the baby’s head was quite small, a possible sign of birth defects. And Howard knew that if America’s first test tube baby had problems, that would give ammunition to the many critics who considered IVF unnatural and immoral — it might even halt IVF in the U.S. So he prayed that the baby would be okay, scheduled delivery by Caesarian section for the morning of December 28, 1981, and wrote out a press release listing what he would say if something went wrong. Fortunately, that press release remained in Howard’s pocket. Elizabeth Jordan Carr was born at 7:46am; “a wonderful baby,” her neonatologist gushed at the initial news conference. America’s first test tube child grew up happy and healthy, graduated from Simmons College in 2004, and is pursuing a career in journalism.

 

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