First Human In Vitro Fertilization Experiments in the United States, 1944-1948. John Rock Papers.


First Human In Vitro Fertilization Experiments in the United States, 1944-1948. John Rock Papers.

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Title: First Human In Vitro Fertilization Experiments in the United States, 1944-1948. John Rock Papers.
Abstract: In 1944, Dr. John Rock, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Harvard Medical School, and his research assistant Miriam Menkin announced their completion of a series of human in vitro fertilization (IVF) experiments in Science after six years of attempting the procedure in their laboratory at the Free Hospital for Women in Brookline, Massachusetts.

After their initial announcement, Rock and Menkin published 'In Vitro Fertilization and Cleavage of Human Ovarian Eggs,' in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1948. This article elaborated on their IVF experiments and included several photographs, including capturing the earliest recorded stages of human embryo development. Rock and Menkin disclosed that they studied over 800 follicular eggs while completing this research, including 138 that were attempted to be fertilized by human spermatozoa. Menkin fertilized the pre-ovulation ovum from Rock's fertility patients with sperm donated by Dr. Rock's willing medical interns, and then left the specimen to develop. Rock and Menkin later discovered the supposed cleavage of the eggs after allowing time for incubation. The procedure was completed twice more, obtaining two and three-cell stage development, as shown in the images on this page. Their announcement was heralded as a historical moment since it was believed that Rock and Menkin had captured the earliest stage of human conception in a laboratory.

However, in the following years, Rock's results were questioned since no child was produced as a result of these experiments, and that it was later determined that Rock mistook clumping of ova for cell division. Despite the confusion surrounding their work, Rock and Menkin launched thirty years of IVF development, culminating in the birth of the first 'test tube' baby from in vitro fertilization, Louise Brown, born in 1978 in the United Kingdom.

Rock continued to focus his research on women's reproductive health, and in the late 1940s and 1950s, Rock collaborated with Dr. Arthur Hertig at the Free Hospital for Women and Dr. Gregory Pincus at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology on several studies focusing on the usage of hormones to control and predict ovulation in women and later on trials and development of oral contraceptives. These trials eventually led to Rock's most publicized achievement, his development with Pincus and Min-Chueh Chang of Enovid, the first oral contraceptive, now commonly known as the birth control pill, which received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1960. Rock, being a devout Catholic physician, garnered much publicity for his stance in favor of oral contraceptives in opposition to his church's stance on birth control.

The John Rock Papers are housed in the Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. The collection includes Rock's research notes and correspondence with Miriam Menkin and other colleagues from his work on in vitro fertilization, sperm freezing, progesterone and estrogen to control ovulation, and oral contraceptives. The collection also contains manuscripts, photographs, research slides, and patient records resulting from his reproductive research.

Image 1 - This image shows the convoluted wall of Graafian follicle from which a human egg was recovered from a 38-year-old woman. The egg was fertilized by Rock and Menkin with human spermatozoa and developed into the second-cell stage after a 29.5 hour incubation period. Magnified at x400, 1944. From the John Rock Papers.

Image 2 - Human egg in two-cell stage. This egg, from a 31-year-old woman, shows the spermatozoa fertilization of the ovum from the 11th day of the subject's menstrual cycle after a 45 hour incubation period. Magnified at x300, 1944. From the John Rock Papers.

Image 3 - A section of the three-cell stage egg washed out of an ovarian follicle of a 38-year-old sterility patient being treated by Dr. Rock. The ovum from the 12th day of her menstrual cycle fertilized by human spermatozoa and incubated for 46 hours. Magnified at x500, 1944. From the John Rock Papers.

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H MS c161_IVF_1944_Specimen_1.jpg 848.9Kb image/jpeg ThumbnailLowerInGenHandler
H MS c161_IVF_1944_Specimen_2.jpg 533.7Kb image/jpeg ThumbnailLowerInGenHandler
HMS c161_IVF_1944_Specimen_3.jpg 633.3Kb image/jpeg ThumbnailLowerInGenHandler

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