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Mason Andrews, 87; `Test-Tube Baby' Pioneer

October 20, 2006|Patricia Sullivan | Washington Post

Mason Andrews, the physician who delivered the nation's first in-vitro baby, died Oct. 13 of pulmonary fibrosis at his home in Norfolk, Va. He was 87.

Andrews, an obstetrician and gynecologist, had delivered about 5,000 babies in his hometown of Norfolk before delivering Elizabeth Carr by caesarean section Dec. 28, 1981, at Eastern Virginia Medical School in that city.

The birth of the first U.S. "test-tube baby" gave hope to hundreds of thousands of American women who were unable to become pregnant. Carr was the first of about 330,000 babies who have since been born through in-vitro fertilization in the United States, according to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.

It did not happen without controversy. Andrews had invited Drs. Howard and Georgeanna Jones, who were retiring from Johns Hopkins University's Laboratory of Reproductive Physiology, to teach at Eastern Virginia Medical School, which Andrews had co-founded. They arrived in July 1978, the same month the world's first so-called test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in England. A reporter asked whether the feat could be accomplished in Norfolk.

"I don't see why not," one of the physicians replied.

Andrews said he did not plan to set up an in-vitro fertilization clinic. But while other physicians and hospitals dependent on federal funding waited for approval from the federal government to do just that, the privately funded Norfolk clinic at the medical school moved forward.

The process wasn't a burden on the clinic because those using the service "pay their own way," Andrews told the Washington Post in 1979.

At a hearing for a state certificate of need -- required when a hospital attempts a new procedure -- opponents came out in force. Led by antiabortion activists and fundamentalist preachers, opponents battled to prevent the clinic from opening, fearing that researchers would experiment with or discard embryos.

Picket lines went up even as hundreds of phone calls and letters poured in from desperate couples who wanted to be the clinic's first patients.

Throughout it all, Andrews, the courtly son and grandson of Norfolk physicians, spoke for the clinic.

"The real judgment society has to make," he said in 1980, after the hospital had won the certificate, "is when something that's objectionable to a segment of society should be kept from the rest of society."

After 30 attempts, the Joneses shepherded the petri dish fertilization of a human egg to birth. Using fertility-inducing drugs, which made the 28-year-old patient, Judith Carr, ovulate at a fixed time, the doctors "caught" the egg cells with a long, telescope-like instrument and placed them in a petri dish with Carr's husband's sperm. The resulting clump of cells was then reinserted into Carr's womb.

The couple's daughter, 5-pound, 12-ounce Elizabeth, was born nine months later. Now Elizabeth Jordan Comeau, she is a newspaper reporter in Maine.

"He was like a grandparent to me," she said of Andrews. "I've known him since the day I was born -- even before that."

Born in Norfolk, Andrews graduated from Princeton University in 1940 and received a medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1943. He served in the Navy and then completed his medical training at Hopkins before returning to Norfolk, where he also served on the City Council and as mayor.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Sabine Alston Goodman Andrews of Norfolk; a brother; two daughters, Jean Andrews and Mason Andrews, both of Norfolk; and two grandsons.

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