Mason Andrews; In Vitro Pioneer Physician

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mason Andrews, 87, the physician who delivered the nation's first in vitro baby in the small Eastern Virginia hospital he founded, died Oct. 13 at his Norfolk home. He had pulmonary fibrosis.

Dr. Andrews, an obstetrician and gynecologist, had delivered about 5,000 babies in his home town of Norfolk before delivering Elizabeth Carr by Caesarian section Dec. 28, 1981, at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

The birth of the first U.S. "test-tube baby" gave hope to hundreds of thousands of U.S. 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. Dr. Andrews was launching the Eastern Virginia Medical School when he invited Drs. Howard and Georgeanna Jones, who were retiring from Johns Hopkins University's Laboratory of Reproductive Physiology, to teach. Upon their arrival in July 1978, the world's first so-called test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in England. A reporter asked whether the feat could be done at Norfolk.

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

Dr. 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 moved forward.

"Peculiarly, that doesn't take much money, because the people who want who to use [the service] pay their own way," Dr. 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, the 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, Dr. 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 won the certificate, "is when something that's objectionable to a segment of society should be kept from the rest of society."

After 30 unsuccessful tries, 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, the 5-pound, 12-ounce Elizabeth, was delivered nine months later. Now known as Elizabeth Jordan Comeau, she is a newspaper reporter in Maine.

"He was like a grandparent to me," Comeau said yesterday of Andrews. "I've known him since the day I was born -- even before that." Dr. Andrews stayed in touch with her throughout her life, said Comeau, sending her birthday cards and recently a wedding gift. "He always teased me that I really should go into science," she said.

Howard Jones credited Dr. Andrews with integrity, character and the ability to withstand the controversy while shielding the clinic staff.

"People who don't remember those times don't appreciate the public policy aspects he handled," Jones said. "He was the key; he was able to handle this aspect very well while my wife and I did the biomedical aspect."

Born in Norfolk, Dr. 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.

In 1964, Dr. Andrews became chairman of the authority that established the Eastern Virginia Medical School, and 10 years later was elected to the City Council, on which he served 26 years. He was mayor from 1992 to 1994 and was known as the architect of downtown development.

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

© 2006 The Washington Post Company