In 1965, Robert Edwards spent six weeks at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine working as a visiting fellow with Howard W. Jones Jr., M.D., then head of the crytogenetics laboratory and later Director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Hopkins, trying to fertilize human eggs in a laboratory test tube. They failed. Or so they thought when they published their results as “Attempts to Fertilize the Human Egg in Vitro” in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
“We worked all summer on that,” says Jones, who with his wife, Georgeanna Seegar Jones, M.D., later went on to Eastern Virginia Medical Center in Norfolk, where he oversaw the first successful in vitro fertilized baby in the United States, born in 1981. “One of the criteria … was that you need to see the sperm tail in the egg. We could never see the sperm tail, so Bob did not claim fertilization in the paper that was written.” Years later, they realized they had been wrong about that — and fertilization had, indeed, occurred.
Edwards came to spend a summer at Johns Hopkins thanks to another Hopkins faculty member, the late Victor McKusick, M.D., father of medical genetics, whom he met at a scientific meeting. Edwards was then working in Cambridge, England, and was having a difficult time procuring the resources he needed to try his in vitro fertilization techniques.
“So Victor called me and said, ‘Can you give this chap some eggs if he were to come?’” Jones recalls. Jones was studying ovarian disease and resecting ovaries several times a week. “I thought, Gee, I could give Bob parts of the ovary and he could get the eggs out … I immediately said yes, we could do that. So Bob came to Hopkins.”
According to Jones, the photos of their experiments that summer “clearly show eggs with two pro-nuclei, which nowadays are accepted as evidence of fertilization.” But they never claimed it as such based on what had been observed upon in vitro fertilization of rabbit eggs, which was reported by M.C. Chang in Nature in 1959.
“So I think, in truth, in 1965, there was the first human egg fertilization in vitro, which occurred at Hopkins,” says Jones. “I suggested to Victor one time that maybe there ought to be a plaque on the wall in the lab where that occurred.”
Note: The Howard Jones Memorial Lecture was held Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010, in the Woodruff Lecture Hall. Edwards was the 10th lecturer in the decades-long series developed by Ed Wallach, who is still on faculty here. Jones was at the Lecture.