May 21, 2024

An early progenitor of IVF?

“The strange tale of how 500 women were helped to conceive after the first world war”.

The Spectator (UK) is describing it as “The strange tale of how 500 women were helped to conceive after the first world war”. A better summary would be: how a founder of the International Planned Parenthood Federation did her bit for assisted reproduction in the days before test-tube babies.

Dr Helena Wright (1887–1982) was a pioneering British gynaecologist. Amongst her achievements were persuading the Church of England to abandon its opposition to contraception at the 1930 Lambeth conference, crusading for birth control, writing best-sellers on sex therapy, organising illegal adoptions and abortions and supporting the British Eugenics Society.

After World War I women married to impaired men went to her Knightsbridge and Notting Hill clinics to help them have children. Her response was social rather than medical. She acted as a broker for a young American-born man, Derek, who slept with her clients so that they could become pregnant. Between  1917 and 1950 he fathered – so The Spectator claims – 485 children for Dr Wright’s primitive sperm donor service plus 9 children from his own marriage and other relationships.

The author of the article, Paul Spicer, describes this arrangement as an exercise of great altruism: “providing longed-for children where there would have been none”. There is no consideration of the effect upon the clients’ marriages, the impact of secrecy upon parenting, the danger of sexually-transmitted disease, the illegal nature of the arrangement and all the problems which surround sperm donation. 

Michael Cook
Creative commons
assisted reproduction
Helena Wright
sperm donation