Since this is Father’s Day weekend I thought I’d share an article from a recent issue of Digging History Magazine (March-April 2019). In the last few days I’ve noticed other articles along the lines of moral dilemmas regarding DNA tests which are now readily available (and heavily promoted). Yes, it’s fun to find out “who you are” as in what are your ethnic origins, but what if you discover some deep, dark family secret?
This issue has featured a wide range of articles and this one is inspired by the book reviewed on page 23 (Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro). While reading the book I pondered Ms. Shapiro’s story and thought about how others had been unbeknownst-to-them conceived artificially as she was decades ago, and years before established ethical guidelines were in place. My question: does this present a potential 21st century moral (ethical) dilemma?
As DNA technology advances at an unprecedented pace I anticipate more stories like hers will come to light. For Shapiro, taking the DNA test was a casual afterthought, yet the results rocked her world – forcing her to adjust to new realities of who she really was in terms of heredity and heritage. Ponderous thoughts . . . and now a little history.
Knocked out, then knocked up (in a colloquial sort of way) is more or less how the first full-term American “test tube tot” was conceived. The year was 1884 when a 31-year-old Quaker woman visited Dr. William Pancoast, a physician at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College. She and her husband wished to have children but as yet had been unable to conceive.
While Pancoast originally assumed the inability to conceive was due to the woman’s infertility, a series of examinations revealed the more likely cause to have been her husband’s low sperm count. Her husband, a wealthy 41-year-old Philadelphia merchant, was healthy – save for a case of gonorrhea years earlier. A two-month course of treatment yielded no change – his sperm remained “absolutely void of spermatozoons”.1
Pancoast made the decision, without informed consent of either the woman or her husband (the moral dilemma part) to proceed with treatment as follows:
In front of six medical students, Pancoast knocked out his patient using chloroform, inseminated her with a rubber syringe, and then packed her cervix with gauze. The source of the semen was one of the medical students in the room, determined to be the most attractive of the bunch.2
Was Pancoast a scientist or some sort of quack, or as one 1965 article suggested, perhaps he submitted to pressure from his students.3 By all accounts William Pancoast was a reputable physician. He was born in Philadelphia in 1835, the son of Joseph Pancoast, a renowned surgeon. After graduating from Haverford College William entered Jefferson Medical College and graduated in 1856. Following extended studies abroad he returned to Philadelphia in 1858, cultivating his own well-regarded reputation as a surgeon.
During the Civil War he served as chief surgeon at a Philadelphia military hospital and in 1862 was appointed Demonstrator of Anatomy at Jefferson. In 1868 he became an adjunct professor and five years later replaced his father as Professor of Anatomy.
Upon retiring from Jefferson, William Pancoast took a new position as a professor at the Philadelphia Medico-Chirurgical College in 1886. His career had been steady, rather uneventful actually, as evidenced by a brief obituary published in The British Medical Journal in 1897:
He contributed largely to the literature of his profession, and his writings were always marked by width and accuracy of knowledge and soundness of judgment.4
It doesn’t sound like William Pancoast was a “roll-the-dice” kind of guy. As a professor of anatomy he perhaps possessed special knowledge about infertility, or perhaps he had read of earlier attempts by J. Marion Sims, founder of New York’s Women’s Hospital. After the hospital’s opening in 1855 Sims attempted fifty-five artificial inseminations on six different women, yet only one procedure resulted in pregnancy before ending in miscarriage.
Pancoast never told the woman the details of her last “examination” before conceiving, and only told the father following the child’s birth. Together, the two men decided it best to keep the circumstances a secret from the mother. Pancoast never wrote of this particular “accomplishment” even though he wrote extensively throughout his career.
The world only became aware of it after one of his students, Addison Davis Hard, present on that day, divulged details of the procedure in an April 1909 letter to the editor of The Medical World. It had been twenty-five years, Dr. Pancoast had died in 1897, and perhaps Dr. Hard decided it was time to unburden his soul. His opening remarks suggest he may have thought for some time regarding the procedure and its ethical implications:
Editor Medical World: – It has been twenty-five years since Professor Pancoast performed the first artificial impregnation of a woman, in the Sansom Street hospital of Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia. At that time the procedure was so novel, so peculiar in its human ethics, that the six young men of the senior class who witnest [sic] the operation were pledged to absolute secrecy.5
A.D. Hard described how treatment had progressed to the point where no one had a clue as to how to remedy the husband’s blocked seminal ducts. He continued:
A joking remark by one of the class, “the only solution of this problem is to call in the hired man,” was the probable incentive to the plan of action which followed. The woman was chloroformed, and with a hard rubber syringe some fresh semen from the best-looking member of the class was deposited in the uterus [swearing everyone to secrecy]. . . subsequently the Professor repented of his action, and explained the whole matter to the husband. Strange as it may seem, the man was delighted with the idea, and conspired with the Professor in keeping from the lady the actual way by which her impregnation was brought about. In due course of time the lady gave birth to a son, and he had characteristic features, not of the senior student, but of the willing but impossible father.6
Dr. Hard had recently met the boy who was by then a New York City businessman. His article took on a bolder tone after suggesting a society for propagating the practice of artificial insemination was in order. It sounded very much like eugenics which, at the time, was “all the rage”. Interestingly, the term “eugenics” had been coined in 1883, one year before Pancoast’s experimental procedure, by Francis Galton, a cousin to Charles Darwin. The word, derived from Greek, means “good in birth” or “noble in heredity.”7
Hard went on to expound regarding artificial impregnation, marriage and venereal disease:
Marriage is a proposition which is not submitted to good judgment or even common sense, as a rule . . . Artificial impregnation by carefully selected seed, alone will solve the problem. It may at first shock the delicate sensibilities of the sentimental who consider that the source of the seed indicates the true father, but when the scientific fact becomes known that the origin of the spermatozoa which generates the ovum is of no more importance than the personality of the finger which pulls the trigger of gun, then objections will lose their forcefulness, and artificial impregnation become recognized as a race-uplifting procedure.8
“Race-uplifting procedure” was no doubt a phrase lifted from the ethos of that era amidst growing interest in the “science” of eugenics. The more he wrote, the more he sounded like a hard-core eugenicist:
It is gradually becoming well establisht [sic] that the mother is the complete builder of the child. It is her blood that gives it material for its body, and her nerve energy which is divided to supply its vital force. It is her mental ideals which go to influence, to some extent at least, the features, the tendencies, and the mental caliber of the child. . . It is the predominating mental ideals prevailing with the mother that shapes the destiny of the child. . .
A scientific study of sex selection without regard to marriage conditions, might result in giving some men children of wonderful mental endowments, in place of half-witted, evil-inclined, disease-disposed offspring which they are ashamed to call their own…
The man who may think this idea shocking, probably has millions of gonnococci swarming in his seminal ducts, and probably is wife has had a laparotomy which nearly cost her life itself, as a result of his infecting her with the crop reaped from his last planting of “wild oats.” . . .
Go ask the blind children whose eyes were saturated with gonorrheal pus as they struggle thru the birth canal to emerge into this world of darkness to endure a living death; ask them what is the most shocking thing in this whole world. . . They will tell you it is the idea that man, wonderful man, is infecting 80 percent of all womankind with the satanic germs collected by him as his youthful steps wandered in the “bad lands.”9
A.D. Hard had unburdened his soul (rather ickily), “outed” Dr. Pancoast, sounded much like a male feminist, even more so a eugenicist (or so it seemed). However, in a July 1909 article published in the same journal, he brushed aside the original article’s bold assertions, implying “it had been embellished with radical personal assertions calculated to set men thinking.”10
He did in fact “set men thinking” as the next few issues published varying thoughts:
I greatly enjoyed his article and have given the idea much thought. I have personally used the impregnator with success o mares that were apparently steril [sic], and have read what I could find on the procedure in the human family. If, from a commercial standpoint, it be a paying process in the animal kingdom, why would not its influence be many times greater in the human family? Male colts that are not promising individuals are promptly castrated, and yet they are not diseased, and in this way the quality of horse flesh is looking forward; but we are standing idly by and witnessing thousands of infected young men of fine families select a pure, innocent young girl, perhaps your own, to deposit the deadly seed of his “prodigal” reaping, resulting in the train of symptoms in women so common to the surgeon today . . . Why not adopt the castration plan in the human family and save the state and Nation the responsibility of having the charge in the state institutions of these deaf, blind, insane, and criminals?11
Yikes! J. Morse Griffin of Sulfur Springs, Arkansas certainly didn’t mince words did he?
A doctor, writing to the editor in the same issue cited above, mistook Hard’s “hard-line” assertions, unable to believe the story of Dr. Pancoast was true at all:
Some notice, I think, should be taken of Dr. Hard’s dream (page 163). I wondered what he had eaten for supper, or what is his brand of drinking water. Dr. Pancoast was a gentleman, and would not countenance the raping of a patient under an anesthetic. . . The story of taking the gentleman’s seminal fluid to be examined by the students to see it it contained any “spermatozoons” is a flight of fancy worthy of Munchausen.12
“ridiculously criminal” (N.J. Hamilton, M.D., Buswell, Wisconsin);
“a ridiculous jumble of fact . . . I must admit that I do think this article shocking, not only to me but to any male or female who has a proper understanding of marital relations or the laws of God. . . Furthermore, I have as healthy and bright a child as one could wish for, and she was not begotten with a hard rubber syringe, either.” (C.L. Egbert, Glenville, Nebraska)13
Dr. Hard had to ‘fess up in the July issue, however, in answer to his many critics:
I cannot convey to you an idea of the amount of pleasure that the varied answers to my article on “Artificial Impregnation” have given me. In answer to all my critics and reviewers, I wish to say that while the article was based upon true facts, it was embellisht [sic] purposely with radical personal assertions calculated to set men to thinking on the subject of generativ [sic] influences and generativ [sic] evils. Bless my critics. I would not wish to own a child that was bred with a hard-rubber syringe. And I do not care to think that my child bears toward the millenium no traces of his father’s personality, humble tho it be. I am a firm disciple of impregnation in the good old orthodox manner, with all its esthetic features and risks of evil. Let us now pull the trigger of some other gun, and set free another explosion of cerebral action.14
Engendering “explosions of cerebral action” notwithstanding, the journal’s editor was not, it appears, amused by Hard’s repartee, adding “[And the editorial department will hereafter realize that you are not to be taken seriously, and act accordingly.–Ed.]”.
Dr. Hard, all kidding aside, had set off a firestorm of opinion, both for and against the practice of artificial impregnation – at least in regards to the human variety.
Actually, the term “artificial impregnation” had been around for quite some time. In terms of the proverbial “birds and bees” these references had been on the “bees” side, focused on creating hybrid seeds, various plants and flowers. By the late 1870s the subject of “artificial impregnation” of fish was openly discussed in newspapers.
When the original story was published in 1909, the world was still processing its exit from the prudish Victorian Era. Openly speaking of plants and fish in terms of artificial impregnation was one thing, the human variety quite another. Still, by the mid-twentieth century technology advanced and artificial insemination had taken place, just not openly. Dr. Edmond Farris, of the Institute for Parenthood on the campus of The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) in Philadelphia, was operating (more or less) in a “legal no-man’s-land.”15
Farris, aware of widespread and historical religious thinking, nevertheless believed he was acting ethically:
I see nothing wrong in trying to bring children of fine quality into the world. We’re not in this for monetary gain.
We select a donor who matches the father in everything but blood. Color of hair and eye is the same. We even consider build and religion.
He described the donors in his institute as the “best material that Philadelphia medical schools can offer.”16
The practice of artificial insemination was an “open secret”, with little or no regulation through the 1970s, as Dr. Michael Glassner remembers from his medical school days: “The ob-gyn walks down the hall and says: ‘How tall are you? Are you healthy? How’d you like to make $100? Here’s a cup.’”17
In 1958 Dr. Farris saw nothing wrong with bringing “children of fine quality” into the world via artificial insemination. The practice, colloquially known as “test-tube baby” was, however, making headlines around the world – in many cases not in a good way, either. The public was already questioning such things as “test-tube baby” legal rights:
Q. Do “test tube” babies have the same legal rights as other children?
A. If the husband is the father there seems to be no special legal problems. When the husband is not the father, things get pretty involved. Laws always lag behind scientific discoveries. When our laws were made no on had any idea that “test tube” babies were possible. Lawyers will have to start from scratch and determine what legal right such children have.18
In Edinburgh, Scotland a judge has just ruled that a wife who had given birth to a test tube baby after separating from her husband was not in fact committing adultery. Indeed, her defense counsel had admitted the case was “unique in the annals of our law.”19
Ronald G. MacLennan of Glasgow was suing wife Margaret (who had since removed to Brooklyn, New York) for divorce on the grounds of adultery. The two had separated in March of 1954 and the following year on July 10 she gave birth to a girl. Without her husband’s consent or knowledge she had been artificially inseminated.
The ruling, in turn, set off a firestorm across Great Britain, despite “the traditional British reluctance to discuss sex in public.” The Archbishop of Canterbury vehemently denounced the practice as evil, demanding artificial insemination by anonymous donor (AID) be made a criminal offense!20
Was it “Blessing or Sin” as one British medical expert had gone on television to discuss? At the time of his interview, Dr. Alfred Byrne revealed there were already 1,000 to 1,500 so-called test-tube babies in Britain. Statistically speaking, Byrne revealed one in every eight marriages were unlikely to conceive without artificial means. In his opinion, however, the trouble (9 out of 10 times) lay with the woman.
One panel member, a lawyer, was of the opinion that AID rendered the child illegitimate. Public opinion was mixed in response to the television program:
● I am the mother of a test-tube baby. He is now five, and his coming, with my husband’s full knowledge and consent, made all the difference to our marriage. I say to the Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘If it is wrong to be happy, then we have done wrong’.
● A child conceived in this revolting way is a sin against all laws of nature. If, however, this method is right, it is not wrong for a child to be born out of wedlock.
● However evil artificial insemination may be, its result is to create children, rather than destroy them.21
And, for hundreds of families, the desire for children and the ability to produce them – whether naturally or artificially conceived – was the most salient point of all.
Following the uproar surrounding the Scottish case, reports of test tube babies, parental rights, as well as opinions both pro and con, erupted in newspapers. Test-tube baby court trials, often involving divorce proceedings, made for riveting headlines. Much like A.D. Hard’s provocative 1909 article, it “set men (and women) to think.”
An “ordinary” Australian housewife couldn’t understand (as the mother of four, trying to raise them with Christian training) “the medieval attitude of those who oppose artificial insemination on moral grounds.”22 Yes, clerics could argue if a woman was barren then it was surely God’s will. Then, again, God had also given man the knowledge and abilities to produce miracle-working medical procedures. Surely it was the right of every married woman, her primary right, to produce a child. If it was legal to place a child with a couple who weren’t its biological parents, then why was it wrong to conceive them artificially.
This ordinary Australian housewife had a point. Technology to help childless couples produce offspring was rapidly advancing, although one wonders how much thought (if any) these couples put into potentially ethically-challenging consequences decades into the future.
Modern DNA research rapidly advanced after Oswald Avery identified genes as discrete units of heredity in 1944. In 1959 Down’s syndrome was officially linked to the presence of an extra chromosome (21). Yet, DNA sequencing and mapping technology were still decades away in the 1950s.
Dani Shapiro was artificially conceived via AID in the early 1960s, her mother desperate to have a child of her own. As a child growing up with Jewish parents she would sneak down the hallway to the bathroom after her parents were asleep and stare into the mirror, searching for features which bore similarity to her parents.
Fast forward fifty-plus years and casually take a DNA test. Shapiro was at first merely confused by her results which showed only 52 percent Ashkenazi Jewish (Eastern European) ancestry. As far as she knew her parents were Jewish through-and-through. The rest of her DNA makeup was French, Irish, English and German.
Startlement set in, however, after discovering the person she always assumed to be a half-sister (her father’s daughter from a previous marriage) was not related biologically. DNA technology now makes it possible to pinpoint not only ancestral ethnicity, but the ability to link us to biological kin we never knew we had. That same technology also makes it possible to “un-link” them. A five-minute “spit test” can change a person’s perception of biological parentage – just like that.
If this had happened to me, how would I have responded? If it happened to you, would it turn your world upside down?
Ponderous thoughts, indeed.
The March-April 2019 issue featured several other articles which are summarized in this blog post. The issue is available by single issue purchase. Subscriptions are the best way to enjoy Digging History Magazine, now published bi-monthly and averaging 75-85 pages (the current issue is 100+ pages). No ads, just stories of interest to history buffs and genealogists. Want to try a free issue? If you’re not a subscriber to this blog, sign up today and receive a free issue to see what Digging History Magazine is all about. Already a blog subscriber and haven’t yet received a free issue? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. (You can even choose the issue you’d like to preview [current issue excluded] by perusing the list of magazine archives.)
Hope you enjoyed the article! To all the fathers out there — Happy Father’s Day!
Sharon Hall, Publisher and Editor, Digging History Magazine
- Elizabeth Yuko, “The First Artificial Insemination Was an Ethical Nightmare”, The Atlantic (January 8, 2016), accessed on March 8, 2019 at https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/01/first-artificial-insemination/423198/.
- A.T. Gregoire, Ph.D. and Robert C. Mayer, M.D., “The Impregnators”, Fertility and Sterility (January-February 1965, Vol. 16, No., 1965), 130.
- The British Medical Journal, January 23, 1897, 238. Accessed on March 8, 2019 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2432801/?page=1.
- Addison Davis Hard, M.D., Letter to the Editor of The Medical World (April 1909), 163. [accessed at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044103087300;view=1up;seq=192 on March 8, 2019].
- Bloodlines: Technology Hits Home (Timeline), accessed on March 8, 2019 at https://www.pbs.org/bloodlines/timeline/text_timeline.html.
- Hard, M.D., 163.
- Hard, 163-4.
- Gregoire and Mayer, 133.
- J. Morse Griffin, Letter to the Editor of The Medical World (May 1909), 196. [accessed at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044103087300;view=1up;seq=234 on March 8, 2019].
- C.H. Newth, M.D., Letter to the Editor of The Medical World (May 1909), 197. [accessed at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044103087300;view=1up;seq=234 on March 8, 2019].
- Various opinions expressed in Letters to the Editor of The Medical World (June 1909), 253-4. [accessed at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044103087300;view=1up;seq=292 on March 8, 2019].
- A.D. Hard, M.D., Letter to the Editor of The Medical World (July 1909), 306. [accessed at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044103087300;view=1up;seq=348 on March 8, 2019].
- The Tampa Tribune, March 2, 1958, accessed at www.newspapers.com on March 9, 2019, 68.
- The Tampa Tribune, December 19, 2013, accessed at www.newspapers.com on March 9, 2019, T34.
- Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), January 3, 1958, accessed at www.newspapers.com on March 9, 2019, 9.
- The Amarillo Globe-Times, January 10, 1958, accessed at www.newspapers.com on March 9, 2019, 4.
- The Cincinnati Enquirer, January 26, 1958, accessed at www.newspapers.com on March 9, 2019, 30.
- The Sydney Morning Herald, March 16, 1958, accessed at www.newspapers.com on March 9, 2019, 32.