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Saying Goodbye to Dr. Howard W. Jones Jr., Father of IVF in the U.S.

Robert J. Stillman, M.D., medical director emeritus at Shady Grove Fertility
Robert J. Stillman, M.D., medical director emeritus at Shady Grove Fertility

By Robert J. Stillman, M.D., Medical Director Emeritus at Shady Grove Fertility

It is a sad day having heard the reports of the passing—at 104 years of age—of Howard W. Jones Jr., father of IVF in the United States. But as it is often said in eulogies, and in this case it’s so very true, “He lived a good life.” Dr. Howard, as he was so often reverently called, lived a good life on many fronts. He survived his distinguished partner in life and work for over 50 years, Dr. Georgeanna Seegar Jones, by 10 years, and is survived by 3 children, 7 grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren, as well as the thousands of grateful members of the medical community worldwide and millions of families and their children born through his medical treatments, most notably in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In Dr. Howard’s career, he served as a distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University, innovating incredibly important techniques on the treatment of gynecologic cancers, reconstructive surgery, gender identity, and more. He was a very close friend and collaborator with Sir Robert Edwards, with whom he collaborated and allowed important seminal IVF research to proceed at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s when it was not then allowed in England. This research helped lead to the first successful IVF birth in England in 1978, for which Sir Edwards later won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Dr. Howard and his wife were already world famous and revered in the medical community when they retired from Hopkins at the mandatory age of 65. They decided to retire to Norfolk, VA, and began work at the newly opened Eastern Virginia Medical School. It turned out that that their career at Hopkins was only the beginning and retirement was quite illusory. Their retirement was instead a fortuitous beginning, since after the birth of Louise Brown in England in 1978, they opened—with the support of their friend Sir Edwards—what became the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Norfolk. This union led to the first U.S. IVF birth in 1981.  1981—just 34 years ago. It’s amazing to think that when I began my fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility in 1978, there was no such thing as successful human IVF. Think of the changes that I have been able to witness since then, including the first IVF birth in the Washington area at my Division of REI at George Washington University in 1983, and now the literally tens of thousands of babies born through IVF at Shady Grove Fertility.

It is widely accepted that it was Dr. Howard’s impeccable stature in medicine and in the community, his moral standing and calm, fatherly force of personality that won the day in the Virginia legislature to allow them to proceed with permission to do IVF. At that time, IVF was much feared and reviled on ethical, social, and medical terms.  Would the babies be damaged or the mothers be hurt? Was this against nature or God?  While the moral questions are still debated today, millions of births, including IVF, donor egg, egg freezing, gestational carrier, and LGBT family building—which we now might take for granted—all stem from the courage, persistence, and genius of these early pioneers.

The Jones Institute became the epicenter of training for IVF physicians for many years, and still is revered for its position in that seminal period of time. Dr. Jones continued his work well into his last years, publishing a book at 98 and his last at 102 years of age. His book Personhood Revisited is a classic look at the ethics and laws related to the past and the future of extracorporeal gestation, genetics, and IVF.

I was fortunate to be among many to have considered Dr. Howard a mentor. His critical work on the epidemic of multiple births in assisted reproduction—still more numerous in ovulation stimulation than IVF, as he so often pointed out—led me to seek him out for consultation and support about elective single embryo transfer (eSET) at Shady Grove Fertility. When I served as Chairman of Council of Physicians and Scientists (COPS), I was truly honored when he accepted an invitation to serve as the opening plenary lecturer at a meeting I devoted to “Reducing Multiple Pregnancies: A Clinical and Laboratory Imperative.” He authored widely, lectured worldwide, and hosted many conferences himself on this subject, and I was later honored to be asked to be a representative of our internationally recognized efforts at Shady Grove Fertility on this important topic. Most recently, I asked him to co-author and lend his weight and stature to a paper Kevin Richter, Ph.D., research director at Shady Grove Fertility, and I were writing, “Refuting a misguided campaign against the goal of single embryo transfer and singleton birth in assisted reproduction.” At 101 years old, he quickly agreed to do so since there are still a small faction who think that multiple births do not have the severe adverse consequences for mother and infants that obstetricians and pediatricians worldwide understand. The paper was published in 2013 in Human Reproduction, and a signed, framed copy of the first page of the paper by Dr. Jones is amongst my proudest possessions in my office today.

They say we are able to do what we do today standing on the shoulders of giants, seeing further because of the work they did before us. There are few, if any, in modern reproductive medicine or any medical field, whom are greater giants than Howard W. Jones Jr. While his charismatic, enormously open and warm presence will be missed, his is a legacy for the work we do every day on behalf the thousands of families we help build and will continue to help build each year. Even those who were not fortunate enough to know him should not only mourn his passing, but be appreciative and celebrate every day that he left us. Yes, indeed, “He lived a good life.”

To learn more about Shady Grove Fertility’s IVF program or to schedule a new patient appointment, please call our New Patient Center at 877-971-7755.

2 Comments

  1. Barbara Eichhorst

    March 15, 2017 - 8:47 pm
    Reply

    Would it be possible to purchase the book, IVF comes to America,? If you have autographed copies it would be a special gift for Allegra Bunch. We have a beautiful granddaughter, Olivia, thru IVF.
    Would mean so much.

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