The first American attempt to move beyond the laboratory successes of fertilizing human eggs in petri dishes to an actual pregnancy began on the morning of September 12, 1973, at New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. It ended roughly 24 hours later, interrupted by hospital administrators before any implantation of the egg could occur. Would it have succeeded in the absence of the interference? No one will ever know.
The Frustration of Infertility
In September 1973 Doris Del-Zio was nearly 30. She had a daughter from her first marriage and had been trying for five frustrating years to have a child with her second husband John. After three unsuccessful surgeries to repair her blocked fallopian tubes, and three unsuccessful attempts at artificial insemination, Doris was at her wit’s end. “They can put a man on the moon,” she told her doctor, William Sweeney, “isn’t there some way scientists can figure out how to help me have a child?”
The Del-Zios’ Attempt
Sweeney suggested in vitro fertilization (IVF) as a last option, and the Del-Zios jumped at the chance, even though in 1973 there had never been a successful IVF pregnancy. But fellow New York doctor Landrum Shettles, a 64-year-old IVF researcher, was willing to give it a try. So after taking fertility drugs for half a year, Doris checked into New York Hospital. On the morning of September 12, Dr. Sweeney surgically removed a centimeter of egg-containing fluid from her ovaries, divided it between two test tubes, then gave the tubes to John Del-Zio, who took them to another part of town, about five miles away, to Columbia-Presbyterian. At 11am he met Shettles in the lobby and was instructed to go to a nearby bathroom and collect a sperm sample. Shettles then took the two tubes of ovarian fluid and one tube of sperm to the building that housed Columbia-Presbyterian’s research labs. Shettles rode an elevator to the 16th floor, then mixed the contents of the tubes together in a colleague’s lab. His plan was to allow the sperm to fertilize the eggs, grow them for four days, then re-implant the specimen directly into Doris Del-Zio’s uterus. If all went well, this would bypass Doris’ blocked fallopian tubes, and she would become pregnant with the world’s first test tube baby.
Abrupt End to the Experiment
Shettles had characteristically avoided letting hospital administrators know what he was attempting, but that didn’t mean he kept it a secret. At around 5:30 that evening, he told a colleague about his plans, and after looking at the strange dark mixture now sitting in the lab incubator, the colleague informed her superior. At 8am the following morning, word reached Raymond Vande Wiele, chairman of the Columbia-Presbyterian obstetrics and gynecology department and Shettles’ boss. Vande Wiele had had numerous run-ins with Shettles over the years, most stemming from the doctor’s refusal to follow established hospital procedures and his unerring ability to gain attention for his accomplishments when the hospital would have preferred not to be associated with Shettles’ research. Vande Wiele ordered the test tube brought to him and then summoned Shettles to a 2pm meeting. While waiting for Shettles, Vande Wiele removed the tube from the incubator and put an end to America’s first attempt at a test tube baby; exposing the cells to room temperature stopped any cell division and further chance of growth.
Vande Wiele had the 2pm meeting tape recorded. He began by asking Shettles to explain what he was doing, then recited a number of reasons he shouldn’t be doing it. Shettles’ work contravened federal regulations and could endanger Columbia’s grants. He was using equipment that was not sterile. The test tube child might be abnormal, exposing the hospital to liability; and more. At the end of the tongue-lashing, Vande Wiele said he would dispose of the test tube, rebuffing Shettles’ efforts to take it away. In fact, the contents would be frozen in a Columbia laboratory and remain there for years to come.
A Blow to American Research
John Del-Zio learned what had happened at 4pm from Dr. Sweeney, and Shettles himself informed Doris later that evening. The Del-Zios would never have a child together; outraged by what had happened, they filed suit against Vande Wiele and Columbia-Presbyterian in 1974. Shettles was forced out of the hospital in October 1973, and he would never succeed in helping create a test tube baby. The controversy over America’s first test tube attempt likely set back research in the U.S. by a number of years; as it turned out, the first success, in 1978, belonged to an English team, Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, who had been working on IVF together for ten years.