Dr. Howard Jones, father of in vitro fertilization in the U.S., dies at age 104

Posted at 4:34 PM, Jul 31, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-31 19:54:29-04

Norfolk, Va. – Dr. Howard W. Jones Jr., the father of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the United States and a prodigious scientist who continued to work even at the age of 104, died on Friday.

Dr. Jones and his endocrinologist wife, the late Dr. Georgeanna Jones, pioneered the techniques behind the birth of the nation’s first child as a result of IVF.

That birth and others that followed led to the establishment of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at EVMS and a reproductive medicine field that now counts more than five million IVF births worldwide.

“The IVF success was an incredible accomplishment, not just for him personally but for our institution and for the profession of medicine,” says Richard Homan, MD, President and Provost of EVMS and Dean of the School of Medicine, who credits Howard and Georgeanna with bringing international acclaim to EVMS.

But there was much more to Dr. Jones than just his signature achievement, Dr. Homan says.

“There are few people who inspire you when you first meet them. Dr. Jones was one of those individuals. He exuded an enthusiasm and a curiosity, and he was intellectually keen and extraordinarily bright, yet humble and human and approachable. He was the consummate scholar, academician and physician and a role model for all of us to emulate.”

As a medical student in the mid 1980s, Alfred Abuhamad, MD, was inspired by Dr. Jones and his work. Dr. Abuhamad eventually became Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Mason C. Andrews Chair in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Jones became a colleague and prized mentor.

“EVMS is incredibly fortunate to have had Dr. Jones here. His accomplishments in reproductive medicine and in vitro fertilization were incredible and amazing,” Dr. Abuhamad said.

“He and Dr. Georgeanna revolutionized how we care for women with infertility problems. Everywhere you look around the world you can see Howard and Georgeanna Jones in the fellows they trained, in the discoveries they made and in the countless patients they impacted.“

Born in Baltimore in 1910, Dr. Jones was the son of a physician and delivered by the obstetrician-father of his future wife. He attended Johns Hopkins University and worked in gynecology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After completing residencies in surgery and in gynecology, he eventually became the go-to surgeon at Johns Hopkins for genital abnormalities and reconstructions.

Dr. Jones and his wife are the first – and only – couple to share the EVMS Outstanding Faculty Award, the school’s highest honor for faculty. The recognition was a tribute to a collaborative effort that led to their scientific breakthrough and a measure of a shared personal and professional life.

For three decades at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the Joneses shared one office and a desk for two. When they reached mandatory retirement age at Johns Hopkins, they agreed to accept an employment offer from Howard’s old Hopkins classmate, Mason Andrews, MD. He was building the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the five-year-old EVMS.

The Joneses arrived in Norfolk the day the world’s first IVF baby was born in England. Asked by a Virginian-Pilot reporter if the same thing could be done in the U.S., Howard replied it could – and added, flippantly – “all we need is money.”

To their surprise, a former patient of Dr. Georgeanna, read the story and called with an offer to help. The resulting donation was the seed money that launched the Joneses’ work.

They had a number of failed IVF attempts before a couple from Massachusetts became pregnant on the first try. The result was Elizabeth Jordan Carr, now a mother herself, born to great fanfare Dec. 28 1981, in what is today known as Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

The first birth brought international fame. The Vatican reached out to the Joneses to help advise Pope John Paul II on the controversial new science of IVF.

It also led to protests. The effort to open the Jones Institute was met by a public skeptical of “test-tube” babies. At a public hearing held to debate the merits of IVF and the proposed EVMS clinic, the Joneses found encouragement from an unexpected source. EVMS students turned out in number to pack the hearing and voice their support.
In 1984, Dr. Jones saw the need for an ethics panel related to reproductive technology and helped establish the ethics committee under the umbrella of the American Fertility Society, now known as the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

As the number of Jones babies continued to grow, the Jones Institute began a popular ritual that continued for several years. Families were invited to join the Joneses at a mother’s day celebration. Photos from those events show Drs. Howard and Georgeanna – often seated on the grass – surrounded by dozens and, later, hundreds of appreciative families.

Though Dr. Jones stopped seeing patients a number of years ago, he continued to keep regular office hours in the building that bears his name. He was a regular at scientific conferences and kept up with and contributed to the latest literature. He authored 12 books, including a collection of love letters exchanged with Georgeanna while Howard was a battlefield surgeon in Europe during World War II, and his latest volume, a memoir of the IVF breakthrough, published just last fall.

The success in Norfolk almost never came to pass. As their careers were coming to an end at Johns Hopkins, the couple consulted with their children about the move to Norfolk. They unanimously agreed that their parents should retire and remain in Baltimore.

“I think our lives would have withered on the vine if we hadn’t come here,” Dr. Jones said in a 1996 interview.

Dr. Jones is survived by his three children and several grandchildren.