In 1978, when England’s Louise Brown became the world’s first baby born through in vitro fertilization, physicians at academic centers all over the United States scrambled to figure out how they, too, could provide IVF to the thousands of infertile couples for whom nothing else had worked.
Interest in IVF was strong even before British physiologist Robert Edwards and gynecologist Patrick Steptoe announced their success. “We knew that IVF was being developed, that it had been accomplished in animals, and ultimately we knew it was going to succeed in humans,” said reproductive endocrinologist Zev Rosenwaks, MD, of the Weill Cornell Center for Reproductive Medicine in New York.
In the late 1970s, “we were able to help only about two-thirds of couples with infertility, either with tubal surgery, insemination – often with donor sperm – or ovulation induction. A full third could not be helped. We predicted that IVF would allow us to treat virtually everyone,” Dr. Rosenwaks said.
But even after the first IVF birth, information on the revolutionary procedure remained frustratingly scarce.
“Edwards and Steptoe would talk to nobody,” said Richard Marrs, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist in Los Angeles.
And federal research support for “test-tube babies,” as IVF was known in the media then, was nil thanks to a ban on government-funded human embryo research that persists to this day.
The U.S. physicians who took part in the rush to achieve an IVF birth – most of them young fellows at the time – recall a period of improvisation, collaboration, shoestring budgets, and surprise findings.
“People who just started 10 or even 20 years ago don’t realize what it took for us to learn how to go about doing IVF,” said Dr. Rosenwaks, who in the first years of IVF worked closely with Dr. Howard Jones and Dr. Georgeanna Jones, the first team in the U.S. to announce an IVF baby.
Labs in closets
In the late 1970s, Dr. Marrs, then a fellow at the University of Southern California, was focused on surgical methods to treat infertility – and demand was sky-high. Intrauterine devices used in the 1970s left many women with severe scarring and inflammation of the fallopian tubes.
“I was very surgically oriented,” Dr. Marrs said. “I thought I could fix any disaster in the pelvis that was put in front of me, especially with microsurgery.”
After the news of IVF success in England, Dr. Marrs threw himself into a side project at a nearby cancer center, working on single-cell cultures. “I thought if I could grow tumor cells, I could one day grow embryos,” he said.
A year later, Dr. Marrs set up the first IVF lab at USC – in a storage closet. “I sterilized the place and that was our first IVF lab, literally a closet with an incubator and a microscope.” Its budget was accordingly thin, as the director at the time felt certain that IVF was a dead end. To fund his work, Dr. Marrs asked IVF candidate patients for research donations in lieu of payment.
But before Dr. Marrs attempted to perform his first IVF, two centers in Australia announced their own IVF babies. “I decided I really needed to go see someone who had had a baby,” he said. He used his vacation time to fly to Melbourne, shuttling between two competing clinics that were “four blocks apart and wouldn’t even talk to each other,” he recalled.
Over 6 weeks, “I learned how to stimulate, how to time ovulation. I watched the PhDs in the lab – how they handled the eggs and the sperm, what the conditions were, the incubator settings,” he said.
The first IVF babies in the United States were born only months apart: The first, in December 1981, was at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Va., where Dr. Rosenwaks served as the first director.
The second baby born was at USC. After that, “we had 4,000 women on a waiting list, all under age 35,” Dr. Marrs said. The Jones Institute reportedly had 5,000.
As demand soared and more IVF babies arrived, the cloak of secrecy surrounding the procedure started to lift. British, Australian, and U.S. clinicians started getting together regularly. “We would pick a spot in the world, present our data: what we’d done, how many cycles, what we used for stimulation, when we took the eggs out,” Dr. Marrs said. “I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of miles I flew in the first years of IVF, because it was the only way I could get information. We would literally stay up all night talking.”