Cell Culture and Science Culture

Oocyte with Zona pellucida by ZEISS Microscopy. (Flikr | CC BY-SA 2.0CC)
Oocyte with Zona pellucida by ZEISS Microscopy. (Flikr | CC BY-SA 2.0CC)

By Alicia Puglionesi

In 1935, during her last year of medical school at Johns Hopkins University, Georgeanna Seegar decided to tackle a mystery of human reproduction that had perplexed researchers for decades. There was a specific hormone that appeared only during pregnancy and triggered characteristic changes in the uterus, but scientists disagreed on where it came from — and even on what to call it. At a time when few women became doctors and even fewer entered biomedical research, Seegar mobilized cutting-edge tools available to her at Hopkins, one of the first American medical schools to admit women “on the same terms as men.”

From this student project, Seegar would go on to play a leading role in establishing the new field of reproductive medicine, eventually co-directing the first in vitro fertilization clinic in the United States. We often think of female researchers like Seegar as defying stereotypes through successful careers in science, and it seems fitting that she devoted her career to reproductive technologies widely seen as empowering for women. Even as a student, Seegar began pushing back against gendered expectations in the lab and creating equitable space for rigorous, original research. But when the goal is medical control over reproduction, women’s scientific achievements, like those of men, can have complex and contradictory reverberations beyond the laboratory walls.

Seegar had planned on becoming a doctor since the age of five, when she nearly died from a severe bone infection. A letter of recommendation sent to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine noted that her father, grandfather, and uncles were all physicians, and pedigrees carried weight in the clubby medical world of the 1930s. The dean, however, could not resist a quip. “I endeavored to dissuade her from studying medicine,” he wrote after interviewing Seegar, but “I have never been successful in dissuading women from doing things which they have made up their minds to do.” Though she might gain admission to Hopkins, she would have to overcome a certain amount of casual sexism to be part of the club.

But when the goal is medical control over reproduction, women’s scientific achievements, like those of men, can have complex and contradictory reverberations beyond the laboratory walls.

In her freshman-year physiology course, Seegar was struck by medicine’s dearth of knowledge about the female reproductive cycle, especially pregnancy. The state-of-the-art pregnancy test at the time involved injecting a patient’s urine into mice and then dissecting the mice. If the patient was pregnant, an unidentified hormone in the urine caused the mice to ovulate. The test’s inventors, Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek, assumed that the mystery hormone was produced by the pituitary gland; critics believed that it came from the placenta, but they couldn’t prove this using lab animals. The only way to pinpoint the hormone was to grow placental cells in a test tube, which was a new and extremely difficult process known as tissue culture. Meanwhile, the Aschheim-Zondek or A-Z test took five days, requiring dozens of rodents and technicians to dissect them. This was one of Seegar’s tasks as a student worker in the Johns Hopkins surgical pathology laboratory in the summer of 1935.

The people who made large-scale tissue culture possible worked next door to Seegar’s lab. George and Margaret Gey, a husband-and-wife team, developed a process that used a cement-mixer-like machine called a roller drum to bathe living tissue samples in a carefully-formulated nutritive solution. Seegar often ate lunch with the Geys. As she learned about their work, she realized that their roller drum held the key to the pregnancy hormone problem.

Seegar made a proposal: she would get placenta samples, the Geys would grow them in culture, and she would perform the Aschhiem-Zondeck test to see if they produced pregnancy hormone. Margaret, who managed much of the lab’s technical work, accepted. In the midst of her fourth-year clinical rounds, Seegar faced the challenge of locating sterile placentas; the first came from a cesarean section in Baltimore and the second from a rare uterine tumor in Boston. Receiving a tumor from a colleague who cared about her research was an encouraging sign of belonging to the medical profession.

After the Geys grew the placenta tissue in test tubes for a few weeks, Seegar extracted the liquid and used it to perform the A-Z test; positive results revealed that the placenta actively produced the pregnancy hormone. However compelling, a sample size of two specimens was not enough to settle the question. Seegar wanted to continue the study and present a conclusive paper. George Gey disagreed; he wanted to publish provisional results right away.

Though the research question and study design were Seegar's, she was only a student. It was common at the time for senior researchers to call the shots, and get credit, for work done by students in their labs. So it’s not especially surprising that George used his position to override her concerns. It’s unclear how much gender added to this power imbalance. George worked with many female collaborators. Chief among them was his wife Margaret; she was listed as a co-author on some papers, but colleagues at Hopkins seemed to agree that she did more than she ever got credit for. George himself acknowledged that women faced unfairly limited horizons in biomedicine. When he submitted their findings to the journal Science against Seegar's wishes, he listed her name as G. Emory Seegar, realizing that reviewers were more likely to reject a female author. Margaret, the  invisible wife-technician, was not credited.

George’s brief paper ran in 1938, after Seegar had graduated and moved on to a fellowship. By that time, she had completed the study that she set out to conduct: a methodical demonstration that placental tissue produced a unique pregnancy hormone, using twelve specimens and carefully excluding all confounding variables. The name of the hormone, originally called prolan, then cyonin, was not yet settled. Seegar called it chorionic gonadotropin, the term still used today.

Social pressure to undergo IVF in order to “have it all” — a successful career and motherhood — is still a gendered expectation, sometimes pushing women to take on significant bodily and financial risks.

She published her definitive results in 1943, pointedly including both George and Margaret Gey as co-authors. The first author was G.E. Seegar Jones. Seegar had married a former classmate, the surgeon Howard Jones. Howard made clear in his marriage proposal that “he was as interested in my career as he was in his own,” Seegar remembered, and he switched his specialty to gynecological surgery in the hope of working together. Her article on chorionic gonadotropin arrived on her desk in the newly-created reproductive medicine division of Hopkins’ Department of Gynecology — a division that she would lead for 39 years. Soon after Howard returned from service in WWII, he joined her in this office and never left.

Seegar took the lessons of her first major biomedical discovery with her as she worked to establish the field of reproductive endocrinology. She continued George Gey’s practice of generous cross-disciplinary collaboration, while mentoring female scientists to take the lead in an emerging discipline. With colleagues including Eleanor Delfs and Maria de M. Ruehsen, she discovered major treatable causes of infertility. For some patients, however, hormone therapy could not produce the hoped-for pregnancy. In the 1970s, Georgeanna and Howard brought their specialties together to develop a solution. They are best known for performing the first in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure in the United States, in the fertility clinic they founded after leaving Hopkins. IVF has since become widespread, used by couples struggling with infertility, same-sex couples, single parents, and increasingly by people at high risk for passing on genetic disorders.

Seegar’s endocrinological breakthroughs fueled a technology credited with empowering people to have children on their own terms. IVF has also been criticized for medicalizing and commoditizing reproduction, as the fertility industry markets to working women seeking pregnancy later in life. Social pressure to undergo IVF in order to “have it all” — a successful career and motherhood — is still a gendered expectation, sometimes pushing women to take on significant bodily and financial risks.

The complex, unconventional family relations made possible by reproductive medicine have not shattered the matrix of gender that Seegar pushed against in the early 20th century. Instead, that matrix bent to encompass new freedoms and old expectations. For many years, the first group of children born through IVF visited Seegar on Mother’s Day, as though to underscore that this female scientist had not erased gender, in her own life or the lives of her patients, but had reconfigured it into a new kind of social and biological arrangement.

Further reading:

Hannah Landecker, Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mario Biagioli and Peter Galison, Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science. Psychology Press, 2003.

Sarah B.Franklin, Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship (Duke University Press, 2013). ProQuest Ebook Central.

Alicia Puglionesi works on the history of knowledge-making and mystery in the human sciences. She teaches at Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her forthcoming book, The Astonishment of Experience, explores how citizen scientists tackled the observational problems of psychology and challenged the boundaries of professionalization around the turn of the 20th century. More information about her work can be found at aliciapuglionesi.com.

Lady Science is an independent magazine that focuses on the history of women and gender in science, technology, and medicine and provides an accessible and inclusive platform for writing about women on the web. For more articles, information on pitching, and to subscribe to our newsletter, visit ladyscience.com.