In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is a remarkable technology that has allowed more than five million babies to be born to parents who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to conceive. It is a form of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in which the sperm and egg are fertilized outside of the human body. The resulting embryo is then placed in the womb, where it is hoped that implantation (the attaching of the embryo to the placenta) will occur. While the first live IVF birth occurred in the UK on July 25, 1978, the earliest whispers of IVF possibilities began in the early 19th century – 1843, to be precise – when scientists realized babies were conceived when the male sperm entered a female egg.
Today, more than 85,000 women in the United States alone undergo IVF treatments each year. This is a remarkable figure considering that less than four decades ago, assisted reproductive technologies were considered a science fiction-worthy topic in modern media and social circles. Continuing research and technological progress continues to make IVF an increasingly viable option for couples who are unable to conceive babies on their own.
In this two-part series, we’ll look at the remarkable history of a form of assisted reproductive technology that makes it possible for technically infertile couples to conceive a baby and enjoy the miraculous experience of pregnancy and birth.
The Early Beginnings of In Vitro Fertilization: Rabbits Were the Original In Vitro Stork
While sperm were discovered in 1677 by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and his trusty microscope, humans were scientifically in the dark regarding how conception occurred prior to the 1840s when scientists discovered the female egg, or ovum. At this point, the bulk of experiments occurring using sperm and eggs were all designed to learn how babies were made. Once the science behind conception was confirmed, doctors immediately got to work on assisted reproductive technologies.
Of course the first, and most logical step was to artificially inseminate women using sperm. While early attempts at artificial insemination during the 1850s were unsuccessful (once conception did occur but resulted in miscarriage), the first official record of a baby born via artificial insemination via a donor was in 1884. Rather than public elation, however, many of these experiments/results were not published until decades after the fact. This kind of work was, and continues to be, criticized. People felt like the medical professionals were “playing God” or “taking science in a direction where humans shouldn’t go,” so early pioneers of ART were often harshly judged, lost professional licensing as well as professional and social status and had an incredibly difficult time finding funding.
Not surprisingly, the desire for infertile couples to become parents in their own right was far stronger than public outcry. This passion continued the wave of ART experimentation ever forward. Fortunately, the Rockefeller Foundation and others interested in human reproduction and sexuality funded the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex in 1922. For two decades, the foundation worked tirelessly, with the majority of their research being done around the topic of human endocrinology. These findings helped us to discover the hormones that were involved in reproduction, which has made all the difference in making IVF a reality.
In the 1940s, scientists Gregory Pincus and Ernst Vinzenz Enzmann, were able to get viable rabbit sperm and ovum together outside of the female rabbit’s body. They waited 12 hours and then implanted the “fertilized” egg inside her womb. Later analysis showed that true conception probably occurred inside (in vivo) her body rather than outside (in vitro). Even so, it was evident to experts interested in reproductive technology that it was only a matter of time until medical science would be able to use the same ideas and techniques in order to help human parents.
In The History of IVF – Part 2, we’ll take a look at the rapid advancements that took place during the second half of the 20th century in order to make IVF possible.
Contact RRC to learn more about IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies.
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