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The Fertility Doctor

John Rock and the Reproductive Revolution

Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner

Publication Year: 2008

As Louise Brown—the first baby conceived by in vitro fertilization—celebrates her 30th birthday, Margaret Marsh and Wanda Ronner tell the fascinating story of the man who first showed that human in vitro fertilization was possible. John Rock spent his career studying human reproduction. The first researcher to fertilize a human egg in vitro in the 1940s, he became the nation’s leading figure in the treatment of infertility, his clinic serving rich and poor alike. In the 1950s he joined forces with Gregory Pincus to develop oral contraceptives and in the 1960s enjoyed international celebrity for his promotion of the pill and his campaign to persuade the Catholic Church to accept it. Rock became a more controversial figure by the 1970s, as conservative Christians argued that his embryo studies were immoral and feminist activists contended that he had taken advantage of the clinic patients who had participated in these studies as research subjects. Marsh and Ronner’s nuanced account sheds light on the man behind the brilliant career. They tell the story of a directionless young man, a saloon keeper’s son, who began his working life as a timekeeper on a Guatemalan banana plantation and later became one of the most recognized figures of the twentieth century. They portray his medical practice from the perspective of his patients, who ranged from the wives of laborers to Hollywood film stars. The first scholars to have access to Rock’s personal papers, Marsh and Ronner offer a compelling look at a man whose work defined the reproductive revolution, with its dual developments in contraception and technologically assisted conception.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. vii


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pp. 1-5

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Chapter 1 Family Matters

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pp. 6-29

The ethics, medical consequences, costs, and social implications of various forms of reproductive technology are hotly debated subjects today. In state and national legislatures, in the courts, and even around the dinner table, we argue about the safety of the hormones and procedures used to induce ovulation, preimplantation genetic screening of embryos, sex selection...

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Chapter 2 Choosing Medicine, Coming of Age

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pp. 30-49

In September 1911, freed from the depressing prospect of a career in business, John Rock entered Harvard College as a member of the class of 1915. Part of an elite triumvirate of colleges—Yale and Princeton were the others—Harvard was nevertheless unique. Its stature, which came from a combination...

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Chapter 3 New Discoveries in Human Reproduction

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pp. 50-86

Any reasonable observer would think a doctor with four residencies completed— surgery, gynecology, urology, and obstetrics—surely would have figured out which field to pursue. Not John Rock. Either he simply could not decide what to do or he was keeping his options open. First, he took a position as assistant in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital...

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Chapter 4 Firing the First Shot in the Reproductive Revolution

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pp. 87-115

In January 1938, John Rock, nearly forty-eight years old, was in his twelfth year as director of the Fertility and Endocrine Clinic at the Free Hospital for Women. He had become a prominent Boston obstetrician and gynecologist and had developed a respectable reputation in research. He could take pride in a satisfying, if not stellar, career...

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Chapter 5 The World of the Patients

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pp. 116-138

In 1948 John Rock told one of his colleagues, “I am not a research man nor have I a research mind. All I know are some of the problems I want answered.” 1 This statement is surprising given his research accomplishments during the 1930s and 1940s. But Rock was not just being modest; he was also describing his priorities in a way that made sense to him. For him, research was a means to an end...

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Chapter 6 The Fertility Doctor Meets the Pill

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pp. 139-184

John Rock’s seventh decade—he turned sixty in March 1950—would turn out to be one of the most challenging, and fulfilling, of his professional life. Changes in the way medicine was practiced in the postwar period, combined with the childbearing frenzy of the baby boom era, helped to make his infertility clinic the most prominent in the nation, as young couples...

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Chapter 7 The Era of the Pill Begins

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pp. 185-221

The inauguration of the oral contraceptive field trials in early 1956 opened a new chapter in John Rock’s life. But before that could happen, he had to deal with an unwelcome, though inevitable, transition in his professional life. Harvard University had a mandatory retirement policy—no exceptions—and John Rock reached the milestone of age sixty-five in 1955...

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Chapter 8 The Face and Voice of the Pill

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pp. 222-246

When Nan Rock was diagnosed with colon cancer in the summer of 1959, she and John were determined not to give in to despair. She underwent surgery and for the next year and a half seemed free from recurrence. In public, Rock handled himself as he always did in times of personal crisis—he kept his feelings to himself, and the world saw only what he wanted...

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Chapter 9 The Pill Falls from Grace

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pp. 247-277

In 1964, John Rock expressed confidence that within a few years the pill would change the mind of the Catholic Church about the intrinsic evil of contraception, easing anxieties about unwanted pregnancies for millions of couples around the world. Once the Church liberalized its attitude toward birth control, he believed, the problem of global overpopulation...

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Chapter 10 A True Visionary

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pp. 278-298

It was the summer of 1971. John Rock was at his house in Temple, New Hampshire, a tiny town about fifty miles southwest of Concord. He was marking the tenth anniversary of Nan’s death and contemplating his own mortality. He now felt more at home in his wooded retreat than he did in Boston. Rock had been summering and spending long weekends...


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pp. 299-304


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pp. 305-364


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pp. 365-374

Image Plates

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pp. 78-86

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402086
E-ISBN-10: 1421402084
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890017
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890012

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 20 halftones
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 794701453
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Fertility Doctor

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Human reproductive technology -- United States -- History.
  • Rock, John Charles, 1890-1984.
  • Gynecologists -- United States -- Biography.
  • Infertility -- Treatment -- United States -- History.
  • Reproductive health -- United States -- History.
  • Oral contraceptives -- United States -- History.
  • Oral contraceptives -- Religious aspects -- Catholic Church.
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