A Miracle Worker

By Randi Hutter Epstein

Dr. Howard W. Jones ’31

Never retire intellectually.

That’s one of Howard W. Jones Jr.’s secrets to longevity. He ought to know. Jones will celebrate his 101st birthday in December. His mind is as sharp as ever.

Jones gained international fame for creating America’s first “test-tube baby.” Elizabeth Carr Comeau was born at 7:46 a.m. on Dec. 28, 1981, two days before Jones’ 71st birthday. The two stay in touch. Comeau says she considers him “like a grandparent.”      

What is less well known is that Jones and his wife, the late Dr. Georgeanna Seegar Jones, founded the country’s first institute for in vitro fertilization in 1980, after they had both retired from Johns Hopkins University. (There was mandatory retirement at age 65).

What’s more, years before they opened the clinic—in 1965—Jones, along with British doctor Robert Edwards, created the first lab-fertilized human egg. But the scientists didn’t realize their success. With a microscope, they examined the sperm and egg coming together. Back then, the thought was that you had to see a sperm tail inside the egg to prove fertilization. They didn’t. They did, however, see large round dots inside the egg’s nucleus, showing the merging of sperm and egg genes, which is today considered evidence of fertilization. Edwards would go on to create the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, born in England in 1978, earning him the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine. This October, at the annual Howard & Georgeanna Jones Visiting Lecture & Dinner at Johns Hopkins, a plaque was unveiled in the Department of Gynecology & Obstetrics commemorating the work there that “led to the award of the Nobel Prize in Medicine.”  

Jones, a gynecologic surgeon, has had a long career paving new and often controversial pathways in medicine. He was one of the first doctors to operate on babies born with ambiguous genitalia—genitals that are not clearly male or female. Later, he helped to found a sex-change clinic at Johns Hopkins. He also operated on Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells are the focus of the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

And yet, when asked about the high point of his career, Jones defers to another one of his so-called secrets to longevity: family. He doesn’t talk about his publications (he’s written several textbooks, volumes of peer-reviewed scientific articles and a memoir of the love letters he and his wife sent to each other during World War II). He doesn’t talk about his achievements in the fertility business. He doesn’t talk about hobnobbing with celebrities (he’s helped to create a lot of their babies). He talks about his wife and children. “Nothing is really fulfilling without a home life and without children,” he says. It’s a rather telling comment from someone who has helped thousands of infertile couples make families. Jones has two sons (Howard III ’64, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Vanderbilt University, and Lawrence ’70, a Denver financial adviser) and a daughter (Georgeanna Jones Klingensmith, a pediatric endocrinologist and chief of the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes at the University of Colorado in Denver). He has seven grandchildren, including Kathleen Jones O’Connor ’90 and Tyler Jones ’99, and nine great-grandchildren.

Today, Jones is actively engaged in issues surrounding the bioethics of the global fertility business. Last year he co-authored (with Susan Crockin, an expert in reproductive technology law) Legal Conceptions: The Evolving Law and Policy of Assisted Reproductive Technologies.

Jones believes there should be broader insurance coverage for fertility treatments and cringes at the “brash commercialization” of international surrogacy—American couples paying women in developing countries to carry babies to term for them. He predicts that a century from now, scientists will be able to create artificial wombs so that women who cannot, for various reasons, maintain pregnancies will not need surrogates. Artificial wombs would allow fetuses to grow to term outside women’s bodies.

Jones also foresees a time—many, many years from now—when people will look back in shock at current debates over sperm and egg banks. One day, he insists, doctors will combine the genes from a man with the genes from a woman, taken from any cell in each partner’s body, to create a baby—no need to buy someone else’s germ cells. And when that day comes, sperm and egg banks will be obsolete, and so will today’s heated debates about the moral implications of paying for sperm and eggs and about the limits on the numbers of babies born per sperm donor.

Many of Jones’ protégés and admirers gathered at the October dinner in his honor at Johns Hopkins. After several toasts, Jones bellowed from his table near the podium, “I’d like to add something.” Many in the room had a feeling that he was—once again—going to quote from one of his favorite Amherst professors. Sure enough, he did: “I’m going to use the words of my distinguished professor of 80 years ago at Amherst College, and, as many of you know, he was Robert Frost, and I will use seven lines from one of his poems.” These seven lines, he said, exemplify, for him, the way to live:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank. An adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a lecturer at Yale’s School of Medicine, she also holds master of public health and master of science degrees.

Photo by Matt Eich/Luceo