Saturday, August 08, 2015

Life's work

Though I'm up to my neck in boxes, our move is now mostly complete--which means I'm finding a few hours here and there to do something other than strategize about what goes where. So last week over breakfast I found myself reading every word of the obituary of a man I'd never heard of, Howard W. Jones, Jr.

Jones, whom the NYT describes as "a pioneer in reproductive medicine," seems to have been best-known for his work on in-vitro fertilization, though his career involved numerous cutting-edge and/or controversial procedures. He treated Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman whose cancer cells, taken without her knowledge, facilitated a number of medical breakthroughs; he opened the first sex-change clinic in America; and he pioneered sex-reassignment surgery for infants with ambiguous genitalia.

Some of these procedures are now celebrated and some condemned, but since this isn't my area of expertise and since all I know about Jones is what I read in his obituary, assessing his contributions to medicine isn't my goal here. Instead--as someone who just turned forty, who's changing jobs, and who shares a profession with her spouse--I'm interested in the unusual shape and length of Jones's career, and how fully that career seems to have been shared with his wife, Georgeanna.

So, first off: Jones died at 104. The Times mentions that he was 71 when the first baby conceived through in-vitro fertilization was born, which doesn't sound so terribly old to make a major medical breakthrough--but it turns out that reproductive medicine was essentially a second career for Jones after he hit Johns Hopkins' mandatory retirement age of 65. (A few weeks ago I commented that academics tend to keep working past a normal retirement age. . . but I was thinking of septagenarians and octogenarians. Dr. Jones kept working for almost four decades after his original retirement.)

Secondly, his new career seems not only to have involved his spouse, but quite possibly to have been inspired by her. (The Times doesn't quite say this, but it describes Georgeanna Jones as "one of the nation's first reproductive endocrinologists," and notes how new the field of endocrinology was when she chose it as a specialty in the 1930s. I'd like to know more about this, and about Georgeanna's own career during the decades that Howard was at Hopkins.) Together they founded the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and, in the words of the Times, their "long professional partnership. . . was so close, they shared a desk."

But this is the detail that got me, and it's where the obituary ends:

Well into his last years Dr. Jones continued to go to his office at the Jones Institute to read and write and to attend lectures, though he stopped working with patients in the early 1990s, when his wife contracted Alzheimer’s disease.

"When she stopped seeing patients, I decided to stop, too," he said. "Without her, it wasn’t fun anymore."

I love this. I don't know what Jones was like as a doctor, and I don't know how to evaluate his contributions to medicine. But he seems like someone who truly saw his work as a calling, who was eager to keep learning until the end of his life, and whose marriage was inextricable from his work.

That's not for everyone. But if there's a sign-up sheet, put my name down.


Susan said...

As one whose marriage was an intellectual love affair as much as anything else, yes. Though in theory, I've always said that it was better to have different fields...

Flavia said...


Well, I wouldn't know! My academic friends are pretty much evenly divided between those who can't imagine being partnered with anyone but a fellow academic. . . and those who think that sounds like the worst thing in the world.

And P.S. for anyone interested in Georgeanna Jones, Howard's electronic obituary (as opposed to the paper one that I originally read) contains a link to hers. It sounds like she was indeed an amazing woman, also employed by Hopkins Medical School (starting in the 1940s--one of how many women, I wonder?) when Howard was there. It also has a lot about the Joneses' relationship with those first in-vitro babies, and about Georgeanna as a role model for women in medicine.

undine said...

Flavia, what a great story! I'm thinking also of Frances Oldham Kelsey, who just died at 104 and who stubbornly (thank goodness!) faced down the drug companies when they tried to push through thalidomide in the 1960s. She and her husband didn't share a desk, but the obit makes their sound like another such partnership