A Brief History of Donor Conception
Looking at eight centuries of manipulating sperm.
Posted March 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Donor conception is becoming significantly more common with the exponential advancements being made in the field of reproductive medicine and with the wider acceptance in recent decades of LGBTQ families, single-parent families, and women in later reproductive years utilizing donor gametes. The accessibility of commercial DNA testing is also helping to expand these families as many people are finding out by surprise that they are part of a sometimes quite large donor family. It's therefore important that readers understand the history of donor conception.
Artificial insemination (referred to as AI) was first used successfully by the Arabs on mares.
Unofficial history claims that the first attempts to artificially inseminate a woman were made by Henry IV, nicknamed "The Impotent."
The first successful AI in a dog was reported by the scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani.
AI was attempted on a human in the year 1790 by the English physician Dr. John Hunter after previously completing the procedure in moths. Dr. Hunter was known for pioneering research in venereal diseases and liked to experiment on himself, which was particularly unfortunate in regards to his research into syphilis and gonorrhea. When a young man desperate to have a child with his wife came to him in 1790, he was equipped with syringes and a prescription for frequent masturbation. He was told to collect his semen and inject it into his wife. We'll never know what type of 18th-century turkey-baster they used, but a single pregnancy was reported.
In 1866, Dr. J. Marion Sims of N.C. conducted 55 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 was never told that she was being injected with a stranger's sperm.
In 1884 the doctor decided that the fault lay with the woman's husband's low sperm count. The man, an elderly merchant many years older than his wife, was deemed to be shooting blanks. Rather than inform them of the sad state of affairs, Dr. Pancoast summoned the wife to one final "examination." As the woman lay chloroformed and unconscious on his table, and as six of Dr. Pancoast's students looked on, the doctor injected into her cervix a large syringe full of semen that was freshly donated by the student democratically deemed by the group to be the "most handsome."
This woman delivered a healthy baby boy, and presumably, all were happy. Dr. Pancoast's experiment remained a secret success for 25 years. (At some point, Dr. Pancoast did inform the husband, and they had decided together to keep the secret.) In 1909, one of the students present that day, the suggestively named and most handsome Dr. Addison Davis Hard, fessed up and published a letter in the journal Medical World containing all the details. Before the letter was published, Dr. Hard took it upon himself to tell the by-then-all-grown-up baby boy the facts about his conception. We can only hope that his aging mother was not a subscriber to Medical World.
AI gains acceptance in Europe and Russia. In 1899, the first attempts to develop practical methods for artificial insemination were described by Ilya Ivanovich Ivanoff.
1n 1909, Dr. Hamilton claimed to have used artificial insemination for 15 years, "without a single failure."
By 1924, there were only 123 cases of AI reported, and in 1928, this figure was increased to 185, of which 65 had been successful.
In the United States alone, AI resulted in 10,000 successful pregnancies. In England, the first publication of a modern account of what was called "Donor Insemination" (DI) was produced in the British Medical Journal. Dr. Mary Barton stated that over a period of five years, about 300 children had been conceived as a result of DI.
In 1941, it was reported that 9,489 women had been successfully impregnated and that 97 percent of the pregnancies had terminated successfully. These figures were compiled from a questionnaire completed by 7,643 doctors.
The 1940s and 1950s
The practice continued to be carried out discreetly by private medical practitioners. It was decided that it was best to leave the practice unregulated, and it remains so today. Parents were told never to tell anyone, not even the child.
It should be noted that (too) many doctors who utilized donor conception in the 1940s-1990s used their own sperm, or sperm from their friends, co-workers, night janitor, or their receptionist's boyfriend to inseminate unknowing patients, most of whom were told that the sperm came from "medical students." Many parents were told of "sperm mixing," a most-likely fictional process where a donor's sperm would be mixed with the husband's sperm to make it "more potent." This was told to parents from the 1940s into the 1970s so that they might easily believe that the infertile husband was indeed the biological father of the child and never have to "tell."
Estimates of the number of children born as a result of DI were at around 20,000.
The first successful human pregnancy with frozen spermatozoa was reported.
A New York Post article in 1955 now estimates the number of children conceived via donor sperm to be 50,000 and growing by 6,000 per year.
Estimates were at 1,000-1,200 births per year.
With sperm cryopreservation, the sperm banking business becomes popular and commercialized.
Around 379 physicians reported that they created 3,576 births via DI in 1977; 37 percent indicated that they kept records on children, and 30 percent kept records on donors. Donor families are frequently told that many of these records have since been lost in "fires" and "floods." So many fires and floods.
The Office of Technology Assessment visited three sperm banks and 10 IVF clinics, 1,558 questionnaires were returned, and a survey was also completed by 15 sperm banks. The survey estimates that 172,000 women underwent DI in 1986-87, resulting in 30,000 births from artificial insemination by donors. This often-cited figure of 30,000 births per year is based on an extrapolation from a very small number of voluntary survey responses from 36 years ago, yet these guesstimates are still used today. This leads to the false conclusion that there is some entity requiring and/or keeping records on the children born from egg and sperm donations. Sperm banks do not know how many children are born from any one donor, and research shows that more than 40 percent of egg donor parents were never asked to report the birth of their child.