Assisted reproductive technologies, or ART, are more common in the U.S. than they’ve ever been: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around 11.3 percent of women between 15 and 44 have used some sort of infertility service. In 2013, doctors performed a total of 191,000 cycles of ART at nearly 500 clinics across the U.S., resulting in around 68,000 babies.
But even the most run-of-the-mill medical procedures were once novel—and the earliest days of ART were a far cry from the strict ethical standards of today.
The first physician to take a systematic approach to human artificial insemination was the controversial 19th-century surgeon J. Marion Sims. Although he founded the Women’s Hospital in New York, the first establishment devoted solely to women’s health, he’s also known for more troubling activities: Many of his notable medial contributions were a result of research he conducted on slaves without his subjects’ consent.
The Women’s Hospital opened in 1855, and during its first several years in operation, Sims performed 55 artificial-insemination procedures on six different women; only one resulted in a pregnancy, and it ended in a miscarriage.
His techniques likely would have been effective if Sims had taken his patients’ ovulation cycles into account—but because he didn’t, the first artificial insemination to result in a live birth, performed by the Philadelphia physician William Pancoast, didn’t happen until a few decades after Sims’ attempts. In 1884, one of Pancoast’s patients, a 31-year-old woman, came to see him at Sansom Street Hospital about her inability to conceive.