1827: Early Research

Scientists first learn that the female body contains eggs, called ova (plural; the word for one egg is ovum).


Scientists discover that conception takes place when a sperm from the male reproductive system enters an ovum.


The Woman's Hospital opens in New York. Its chief doctor, J. Marion Sims, believes that most infertility can be cured through gynecological surgery, but he agrees to perform artificial insemination in those women who refuse surgical methods. Fifty-five times over a two-year period, Sims injects a husband's sperm into his wife's uterus, but his experiments result in only one pregnancy that ends in miscarriage.

Harvard doctor Edward Clarke

Harvard doctor Edward Clarke

The book Sex in Education, written by Harvard doctor Edward Clarke, argues that having a college education contributes to sterility among young women.


As the field of medicine is increasingly professionalized, the American Gynecological Society is formed; Sims is one of its founders.

1884: Artificial Insemination

In the first recorded case of artificial insemination by donor, Philadelphia physician William Pancoast treats a couple’s infertility by injecting sperm from a medical student into the woman while she is under anesthesia; she gives birth to a boy nine months later. Pancoast never tells the woman what he has done, and only shares the information with her husband several years later.

March 24, 1890

Future infertility doctor John Rock is born in Massachusetts.


Surgeon Robert Tuttle Morris, who has been conducting partial "ovarian transplantations" from healthy women to those unable to have children, witnesses the first (and only) successful pregnancy in a recipient.


When an account of Pancoast's actions involving artificial insemination by donor appears in the Medical World journal, 25 years after it originally took place, the doctor is strongly criticized.

November 21, 1909

Future in vitro fertilization (IVF) researcher Landrum Brewer Shettles is born.

Theodore Roosevelt and children

Theodore Roosevelt and children
December 30, 1910: Howard Jones is born

Howard Jones, whose work with wife Georgeanna in the field of IVF will lead to America’s first “test tube baby,” is born in Baltimore. Coincidentally, Georgeanna’s father is the obstetrician who delivers Howard.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt declares, “The greatest of all curses is the curse of sterility; and the severest of all condemnations should be … visited upon willful sterility.”

July 6, 1912

Future IVF pioneer Georgeanna Jones is born.

September 10, 1917

John Del-Zio, who with his wife will become the first American couple to seek IVF treatment, is born.


Principally funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex is founded and spends much of the next 20 years supporting research in the field of reproductive endocrinology (the study of reproductive hormones), as well as the human sexuality research of Dr. Alfred Kinsey.


Rock, who has graduated from Harvard Medical School, opens an infertility clinic at the Free Hospital for Women in Brookline, Massachusetts.


Scientists identify the ovarian hormone progesterone, which plays a key role in pregnancy. A year later the sex hormone estrogen is also identified.

February 2, 1932: Reality vs. Perception

Aldous Huxley’s futurist novel Brave New World is published; it depicts a bleak society populated by test tube babies and shapes public perceptions of the subject.

Gregory Pincus with rabbit

Gregory Pincus with rabbit

Harvard scientist Gregory Pincus conducts IVF experiments involving rabbits that suggest similar fertilization is possible in humans. Pincus is denounced for his work, and Harvard denies him tenure.


An unsigned editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, written by John Rock, praises the possibilities of IVF: “What a boon for the barren woman with closed tubes!” A year later Rock decides to attempt such fertilization in humans, hiring Pincus’ former technician Miriam Menkin as a research assistant.

November 1943

Doris Del-Zio, who will become part of the first American IVF attempt, is born.


In the six years since beginning their experiments, Rock and Menkin have collected some 800 ova and tried unsuccessfully to fertilize 138 of them. Between February and April, however, Menkin allows the egg and sperm to remain in contact for a longer period and succeeds in fertilizing four ova. This marks the first successful IVF of human eggs. Rock and Menkin do not attempt to implant the fertilized eggs in a woman. The published account of the research generates great interest.


Pope Pius XII condemns any fertilization of human eggs outside the body, declaring that those who do so "take the Lord's work into their own hands." Despite Catholic Church resistance, the number of infertility clinics in the United States soars in the postwar era.


Physician Landrum Shettles duplicates the Rock-Menkin experiments at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

December 13, 1954: A Step Back for Science

An Illinois court rules that babies conceived through artificial insemination by donor (AID) are legally illegitimate. Most other states reject this conclusion. By 1960 some 50,000 babies have been born as a result of AID.

Shettles in front of wall with photos of fertilized eggs

Shettles in front of wall with photos of fertilized eggs

Shettles publishes Ovum Humanum, a book containing some of the more than 1,000 photographs he has taken of human eggs as they develop.


Italian scientist Daniele Petrucci claims to have successfully fertilized 40 eggs and grown one embryo in the laboratory for 29 days (by which point it had developed a heartbeat) before destroying it. Although other scientists are skeptical of Petrucci's claim, the Vatican takes him at his word and denounces the experiment as "sacrilegious."


Shettles will later claim that in this year he transplanted a fertilized egg into a woman's uterus, resulting in a pregnancy. If true, this would be a landmark event, but Shettles' claim is never substantiated.

July 1965

British scientist Robert Edwards, who has been conducting unsuccessful fertilization experiments for a number of years, arrives in America and meets doctors Howard and Georgeanna Jones, who are working at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. The Joneses agree to help Edwards, and they are able to fertilize human eggs in vitro.


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) sets out standards for all research performed by its grantees. In addition, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issues an order governing all clinical research conducted with federal grants. As a condition for receiving government money, universities with medical schools such as Columbia are required to sign letters pledging to abide by the guidelines in all research, not just the work directly funded by the government.

1968: Success With in Vitro Fertilization

Edwards, who has decided to try and implant fertilized eggs back into previously infertile women, meets Patrick Steptoe at a London gathering of the Royal Society of Medicine. Steptoe is a gynecologist in Oldham, England, who has developed a new technique of abdominal surgery called laparoscopy that may allow the retrieval of a mature human egg. Edwards and Steptoe agree to join forces and are able to fertilize human eggs in vitro.

July 25, 1968

Pope Paul VI issues a papal encyclical called Humanae Vitae ['Of Human Life’] that forbids Catholics from using contraceptives like the Pill for birth control. Although IVF is not mentioned, the logic of Humanae Vitae, which requires the linkage of intercourse and procreation, would seem to forbid external fertilization as well.

December 20, 1968

Doris and John Del-Zio marry. Doris, who is now 25 years old and has a daughter from a prior marriage, suffers a ruptured ovarian cyst and is subsequently unable to get pregnant. Later tests will reveal that her fallopian tubes are blocked.


A Harris poll shows that a majority of Americans believe techniques like IVF are "against God's will."

Edwards and Steptoe publish the results of their successful IVF experiments in the journal Nature. They have not yet attempted implantation of fertilized eggs back into a woman.


At the height of the women’s liberation movement, an article appears in Look magazine called “Motherhood — Who Needs It?” The article opines that it “doesn’t make sense any more to pretend that women need babies, when what they really need is themselves.” Just the next year, however, the magazine will run a cover feature entitled “The Test Tube Baby Is Coming” that trumpets Shettles’ achievements in the field and makes him famous.

Doris Del-Zio undergoes two operations to try and repair her fallopian tubes. In October she becomes pregnant, but Doris suffers a miscarriage at Christmas.


Doris Del-Zio has yet another operation and then tries artificial insemination, which doesn’t work.

Edwards and Steptoe’s proposal for government funding is turned down by Great Britain’s Medical Research Council. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Human Embryo Research Panel is formed and charged with advising NIH whether to fund experiments involving human fetal tissue. After heated debate, the panel recommends such funding, but its report is ignored.

October 1971

At a Washington conference on biomedical ethics attended by Edwards and Jones, Nobel laureate James Watson, who with Francis Crick had uncovered the double helix structure of DNA, says that IVF research will necessitate infanticide. Edwards, who responds with a forceful defense of his work, is rewarded with a standing ovation.


The American Medical Association urges a moratorium on IVF research involving humans, while the American Fertility Society (headed by Georgeanna Jones) urges further work in the field.

January 22, 1973: Roe vs. Wade Decision

The Supreme Court issues its watershed decision in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion. Anti-abortion activists have also expressed opposition to IVF because fertilization experiments typically involve the destruction of embryos.

April 10, 1973

The Washington Post reports on a brain development experiment in which a scientist decapitated aborted fetuses, sparking a furor and increasing government skittishness about funding IVF research.

September 12, 1973

Early Morning
Doris Del-Zio, who has been on fertility drugs for over half a year, has follicular fluid containing eggs surgically removed from her ovaries by Dr. William Sweeney. Her husband John then takes two test tubes containing the eggs five miles through New York City by taxi to Columbia-Presbyterian.

Shettles meets John Del-Zio in the lobby and sends him to the bathroom to collect a sperm sample. Shettles then takes the tubes to a research laboratory, mixes the fluid and sperm together, and leaves it in an incubator. His plan is to allow the mixture to fertilize for four days and then implant it in Doris’ uterus.

A colleague in whom Shettles has confided alerts her superior about the experiment.

September 13, 1973

News of Shettles’ work reaches department chairman Raymond Vande Wiele, who orders the Del-Zio test tube brought to him. Vande Wiele, who believes the experiment will jeopardize Columbia’s federal grants and has grown weary of Shettles’ continued refusals to follow hospital procedure, summons Shettles to a meeting.

Vande Wiele confronts Shettles with the test tube, which has been at room temperature for several hours and whose contents can no longer be used.

John Del-Zio learns about Columbia’s actions from Sweeney.

Doris, still recovering from her surgery, hears from Shettles what has happened. Her attempt to have another child is over.

October 1973

Under pressure from hospital administrators, Shettles resigns from Columbia-Presbyterian.

June 1974

In the month her child would have been born, Doris Del-Zio claims that she woke up from a faint in a Florida department store to find her arms full of baby clothes. Later that summer the Del-Zios file suit against Vande Wiele and Columbia-Presbyterian for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” seeking $1.5 million in damages.

July 1974: Great Britain Takes the Lead

British gynecology professor Douglas Bevis claims to have shepherded three test tube babies through to successful birth, but the children cannot be found and Bevis’ claim is never substantiated.


Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe have the first successful IVF pregnancy among their patients, but it is an ectopic pregnancy, which implants in the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus, and the baby is lost. The medical team decides to stop giving their patients fertility drugs and focus on surgical retrieval of a single egg that will then be fertilized.

The U.S. government decides that federal grants can only be used for fetal research if they are first approved by a National Ethics Advisory Board. But this board will not be created until January 1978, effectively freezing IVF research in the United States throughout the mid-1970s.

November 1, 1976

Twenty-nine-year-old former cheese factory worker Lesley Brown and her husband John meet with Steptoe. Lesley has blocked fallopian tubes, and Steptoe, treading lightly on the details, proposes IVF as a solution. The Browns agree.


Howard and Georgeanna Jones retire after a combined 85 years of teaching at Johns Hopkins, and are lured to the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, by an old friend.

November 10, 1977

Steptoe surgically removes an egg from Lesley Brown's ovaries. Two days later the fertilized egg has developed into an eight-cell embryo, which he then implants into Lesley's uterus.

December 1977

Edwards and Steptoe discover that Lesley is pregnant; the egg that was fertilized in vitro has become the very first one to grow in utero.

Lesley Brown, pregnant, by window

Lesley Brown, pregnant, by window
1978: The First Test Tube Baby

After discovering that theirs will be the world’s first test tube baby and becoming subjects of a media feeding frenzy, the Browns attempt to quell the chaos by selling rights to the story to a British tabloid for a reported half a million dollars.

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