A Brief History of Donor Conception
by Wendy Kramer from the DSR
Artificial insemination (referred to as AI until the 1980s) was first used successfully by the Arabs on mares.
Unofficial history claims that the first attempts to artificially inseminate a woman were done by Henry IV, nicknamed “The Impotent”.
The first artificial insemination in a dog was reported by the scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani (Italian physiologist,1729-1799). This insemination resulted in the birth of three puppies 62 days later.
This method of conception was first attempted on a human being in the year 1799 by the English physician Dr. John Hunter.
John Hunter (1728-93) was a brilliant Scottish surgeon known for pioneering research into venereal diseases, child development and the lymphatic system, among many other things. Although he liked to experiment on himself — particularly unfortunate in regards to his research into syphilis and gonorrhea — the official surgeon of England’s King George III was also was known to instill within his patients an equal zeal for self-experimentation.
When a young married man, desperate to have a child with his wife, came to him in 1790 with a grim condition known as hypospadias, in which the urethra basically takes a wrong turn out the underside of the penis, Hunter developed a plan. He equipped his patient with a collection of large syringes and a prescription for frequent masturbation. He was to collect his semen and inject it into his wife’s vagina. Tragically, the exact details of their bedroom antics are lost forever, but the fellow did reportedly follow doctor’s orders over the course of two years. By most accounts, a single pregnancy resulted, and Dr. Hunter had proven the possibility of artificial insemination in humans. But it would be a while yet before any physician would formally take up the cause of assisted reproduction.
The practice spread to the United States in 1866 when Dr. J. Marion Sims of North Carolina conducted a series of fifty-five inseminations with varying degrees of success.
The earliest recorded AI in a medical institution took place at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia by Dr. William Pancoast. It was so secret that even the woman being inseminated wasn’t told that the sperm was from a donor, not her husband. A fascinating story worth telling here:
In 1884, Dr. William Pancoast of the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia went rogue and decided to have a little scientific fun with one of his patients, a Quaker woman who had long been unable to conceive. After many examinations, he decided that the fault in fact lay with her husband’s low sperm count. The man, an elderly merchant many years older than his wife, was officially shooting blanks.
Rather than inform her and her husband of the sad state of affairs and move on from a point of full disclosure, Dr. Pancoast summoned the wife to one final “examination.” As the woman lay unconscious and chloroformed on his table as six of Dr. Pancoast’s students looked on, the good doctor injected into her cervix a large syringe full of semen – freshly donated by the student democratically deemed by the group to be the most handsome.
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