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Fertility pioneer Jones still telling his story

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Dr. Howard W. Jones Jr., the venerable scientist behind the country's first in-vitro fertilization baby, has never been one to rest on his laurels.

Jones turns 102 on Sunday — an achievement in itself — but he's also celebrating the publication of his latest book: "Personhood Revisited: Reproductive Technology, Bioethics, Religion and the Law."

The book — his 11th — is an exploration of the thorny moral and legal implications of the in-vitro fertilization technique that was considered radical in this country 30 years ago but is commonplace today.

Jones and his wife, Dr. Georgeanna Seegar Jones, worked together at Eastern Virginia Medical School to produce this country's first in-vitro fertilization program, which led to the birth of Elizabeth Carr, who was born Dec. 28, 1981.

Jones was 70 that day, and his wife 69, having already retired from distinguished careers at Johns Hopkins University before heading to EVMS to achieve their most-celebrated work.

His wife died in 2005, after suffering from Alzheimer's. While Jones stopped seeing patients years ago, he continues to keep hours at the Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine, attending conferences, talking with professors and students and working on books.

Jones spends the winter holidays in a condo he and his wife bought in Denver, where two of their three children live, and the rest of the year in Portsmouth. He was interviewed for this story by phone and said he is planning another book on the history of reproductive science.

He gets around by wheelchair but exercises daily. He jokingly harkens back to Works Progress Administration jobs during World War II to describe the purpose of his next book:

"Work designed to keep people occupied."

He said he's thankful for his health, his family and the people who help him get around.

"Longevity allows you to do things," he said.

Jones — humble, affable and always ready to talk science — doesn't mince words when stating his opinion.

In February, he lobbied Virginia legislators to kill the so-called "personhood bill," which would have written into state law the proposition that life begins at conception. Jones said it could interfere with infertility treatment and endanger women's health.

Jones called the legislation, which passed the House but not the Senate, "a naive expression based on a failure to understand the biology involved." He stepped up the pace of the work on his book after that, believing the theme of personhood would be relevant in today's politics.

The book that recently went on the market, published by Langdon Street Press, recounts in-vitro fertilization's history, and the controversy that ensued when he and his wife brought the technique to Norfolk, making the city front and center in a national debate. Protesters said the scientists were playing God and questioned what would be done with unused embryos.

The Joneses had their supporters, though, and, in one instance, medical students took up so many of the seats at a hearing about the technique that protesters had few places left to sit.

In his book, Jones writes: "At the time of the birth of our first baby, Elizabeth Carr, in December of 1981, the leader of the opposition, Mr. Charles Dean, paraded in front of the hospital with a sandwich board saying, 'see me for the truth,' and he was distributing pamphlets describing the terrible things that were being done."

Jones also writes about the invitation extended to him and his wife by the Vatican in 1984 to discuss the moral implications of the procedure, which the Catholic church opposes.

Most of his books are scientific in nature, but he's recently tried his hand at a more general audience. For instance, in 2004, he published "War and Love: A Surgeon's Memoir of Battlefield Medicine with Letters to and from Home." The book described his years as a surgeon during World War II through letters he wrote to his endocrinologist wife.

Jones has always managed to be on the cutting edge of science and debate. At Johns Hopkins in 1951, he was the first doctor to treat Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cancerous cervix led to an immortal cell line for medical research, written about by Rebecca Skloot in "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." In the 1960s, he worked alongside British scientist Robert Edwards, who helped create the world's first test-tube baby in England in 1978 and was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine in 2010.

Nancy Garcia, who has worked as Jones' administrative assistant for 33 years, helped him put the book together and is gathering his notes for the next one.

"The thing that amazes me is his recall after all these years," Garcia said. "The detail that he can remember is unbelievable."

She said he enjoys writing. "It's what keeps his mind sharp."

Perhaps having famed poet Robert Frost as an English professor at Amherst College helped hone his writing skills.

Jones keeps in touch with the country's first in-vitro baby - who goes by her married name, Elizabeth Comeau, and works for the Boston Globe - and her parents.

He's heard from friends and experts in the field about his most recent book, but quipped:

"I haven't heard from the pope yet."

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