Barren in the New World

1600s - Puritans take their cue from Biblical story of Hannah, who found "barrenness" so miserable she begged God for a child. In reward for her piety, He granted her six.

Barrenness casts suspicion on the woman. Sermons of era make clear that childless women need prove their piety.

Families are fluid and communal, with the childless taking children into their care.

1692 - Prominent minister Cotton Mather tells his flock: "Tis' ordinarily expected that they will bear Children when they marry. If a virtuous Wife be deny'd the Blessing of Children, her not Bearing is not a Trial that she cannot bear. She humbly addressed the God of Heaven, like Hannah, for that gracious and powerful word of his which makes fruitful, remembering, That Children are an Heritage of the Lord, and the fruitful Womb is his Reward." (Cotton Mather, Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, 1692.)

1677 - Using a microscope, Anton Van Leeuwenhoek discovers spermatozoa in semen.

1711 - Rev. Benjamin Coleman sermonizes in The Duty and Honor of Aged Women: "Never may we write her Barren who is fruitful in good works. The orphans are her children, and their loins bless her. Sing O barren! Thou that didst never bear! God's grace and Spirit in thee is better than ten sons."

1700s - Infertility treated with folk and medicinal remedies. The assumed cause is unbalanced menstruation in women. Men who were not impotent are assumed to be fertile.

Physicians begin to treat childlessness as "sterility."

The Father of Our Country

1770 - James Graham of Philadelphia and Great Britain treat infertility by stimulating sexual pleasure, assumed to be essential in successful fertilization, with a murky medicine called "electrotherapy."

1786 - The father of our country proves to be no one's father. (George Washington may have been infertile. Martha had four children by previous marriage, and George treated the two living children as his own.)

He writes to his nephew George Augustine Washington: "... if Mrs. Washington should survive me there is a moral certainty of my dying without issue, and should I be the longest liver, the matter in my opinion is almost as certain; for whilst I retain the reasoning faculties I shall never marry a girl; and it is not probable that I should have children by a woman of an age suitable to my own ..." (Mt. Vernon, October 25, 1786)

1800 - James Walker of Virginia treats infertility as a pathology and argues for doctors to take over treatments from midwives.

1800s - The cause of infertility is unbalanced living. Irregularity, excessive or luxurious living upset the bodily constitution. The family moves from being a fluid, communal enterprise to a place of refuge and repose. Mother-child bond becomes the most crucial and exalted family relationship.

New discoveries and surgical instruments shift attention to anatomical causes of infertility. Doctors focus on perceived defects in the uterus and cervix.

Circa 1850 - J. Marion Sims develops the famous "Sims speculum," a tool (though updated) still used by gynecologists. With the speculum and other devices, Sims probes and cuts the cervix to widen its aperture, assuming that blockages prevented the travel of sperm. Sims also shocks his colleagues by experimenting with artificial insemination.

The Fragile Women

1861 - Mary Chesnut, 38, laments her childless condition and the social rejections she felt implicit or explicit: "Women have such a contempt for a childless wife ... Mrs. Chesnut {mother in law} was bragging to me one day, with exquisite taste ... to me, a childless wretch ... of her twenty-seven grandchildren; and Colonel Chesnut, a man who rarely wounds me, said to her: 'You have not been a useless woman in this world.' But what of me! ... I am allowed to have no children." (A Diary from Dixie)

Gynecology emerges as a distinct medical profession. Doctors help maintain a view that a woman's personal misbehavior caused most cases of infertility.

1873 - Harvard M.D. Edward Clark warns that heavy mental activity (schooling) in tender teenage years may wreck a young woman's reproductive system: "The results are monstrous brains and puny bodies ... If the reproductive machinery is not manufactured then, it will not be later. If it is imperfectly made then, it can only be patched up, not made perfect, afterwards ... The brain cannot take more than its share without injury to other organs."

1876 - New York physician Emil Noeggerath argues to disbelieving colleagues that gonorrhea causes sterility. He insists that women are largely infected by their disease-carrying husbands.

1880-90 - American fertility rates hit a historical low, possibly the result of reduced post-war marriage rates and a boom in prostitution, which spreads sexually-transmitted diseases.

1890 - "Sterility" treatments are now routine services offered by gynecologists. Some physicians test semen to determine the male's role in childlessness.

1890 - Society holds mothers among the most virtuous. Women who use birth control to remain childless viewed as cold or selfish.

Race Suicide

1900 - Americans increasingly focus on close-knit, smaller families. Family size drops from an average of seven children in 1800 to four in 1900.

1910 - President Theodore Roosevelt and other eugenicists warn against the "race suicide" that white, middle class Americans drift towards because of their "willful sterility." Roosevelt considers voluntary childlessness an unpatriotic act.

Infertility Medicalized

1921 - Researcher I. C. Rubin develops a test for blocked fallopian tubes, a major cause of female infertility.

1923 - The female reproductive hormone estrogen is discovered.

1929 - The female reproductive hormone progesterone is discovered.

1930-40 - Voluntary childlessness hits its peak: 28 percent of married women of color; 20 percent of whites.

1934 - Lillian Lauricella gives birth to twin daughters from donor insemination.

1934 - Comprehensive guidelines published for determining male infertility by analyzing sperm count and quality.

1935 - The male sex hormone testosterone is discovered.

Making Babies for America

1943 - Synthetic hormone supplements available.

1944 - Harvard physician John Rock reports the first US fertilization of human eggs in a laboratory dish (in vitro).

1950s - Public demand for fertility treatment far outpaces scientific abilities.


1960 - The ovarian stimulation drugs Clomid and Pergonal tested as infertility treatments.

1965 - Baby boom generation begins to come of age, delays childbearing.

1970 - Nation's first commercial sperm bank opens in Minnesota.

1972 - National Association of Non Parents formed to promote "child-free" living.

1973 - The volunteer group Resolve formed to help infertile people.

1978 - Louise Brown, first "test tube baby" is born by in vitro fertilization in England.

1981 - Elizabeth Jordan Carr is born, the first in vitro baby in the US.

1987 - Donor ova available in the US.

Baby Craze Redux

1992 - Researchers in Belgium report pregnancies using a technique to inject a single sperm cell into an egg. The procedure, known as ICSI, revolutionizes the treatment of male infertility.

1997 - Atlanta infertility clinic announces first successful pregnancy in US using an egg that had been frozen.


From Barren to Infertile