Obituaries

John Biggers, 94, pioneer researcher for in vitro fertilization

Dr. Biggers taught at several universities, including Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Biggers taught at several universities, including Harvard Medical School.

John Biggers was vacationing with his family on the Isle of Wight in England 60 years ago when his scientific collaborator, Anne McLaren, sent word that their experiment culturing mouse embryos and placing them “into uterine foster mothers” had been a success.

“Anne let me know of their birth by a telegram reading, ‘Six bottled babies born,’ which caused raised eyebrows from the local postmistress,” he recalled in an interview published in the journal Human Fertility in 2008.

The landmark paper that he and McLaren subsequently published in the journal Nature in 1958 marked a significant step toward in vitro fertilization, or IVF, which is now used as an assisted reproductive technology in tens of thousands of births annually in the United States alone.

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“Suffice it to say that your influence in the field of reproduction cannot be overstated,” Catherine Racowsky, director of the assisted reproductive technologies laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a eulogy at a memorial service for Dr. Biggers last month.

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Dr. Biggers, whose research career took him to three continents and concluded with many years at Harvard Medical School, died April 7 in the Brookhaven at Lexington retirement community. He was 94 and had been diagnosed with cancer. Dr. Biggers had previously had lived in Newton for many years.

In her eulogy, Racowsky also said Dr. Biggers’ contributions “to the ethical framework for guiding the field of clinical assisted reproduction set the highest standards, which have stood the test of time.”

Racowsky, who also is a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, added in an interview that Dr. Biggers “was a giant in the field. His contributions span so many different areas of mammalian reproductive physiology. He was one of those extraordinarily humble, quiet, sensitive men who just went about the business of learning science.”

Beginning with his childhood, Dr. Biggers went about the business of science on a global scale.

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The older of two children, John Dennis Biggers was born in Reading, England, and grew up in Hounslow, a borough of London. His father, Wilfred Norman Biggers, was a chemistry and physics teacher. His mother, the former Winnifred Gardner, worked for the British Overseas Airways Corp., which is now British Airways.

When Dr. Biggers was around 10, asthma left him bedridden for about a year. The experience, he would say, was essential to his intellectual development because he devoted the entire year to reading.

A few years later, while he was in his teens, his parents told him and his sister to ride their bicycles to their grandfather’s house miles away when it was clear London could be a bombing target as World War II began. Dr. Biggers also related anecdotes of how, as a child, he heard a loud noise overhead and ran outside to see his first airplane high above.

“The older he got, the more he’d come out with stories as a witness to modern history,” said his daughter Philippa of Wellesley.

Dr. Biggers was educated at the Royal College of Veterinary Medicine and at the University of London, where he specialized in mammalian physiology and graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate.

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At the Royal College, “physiology was taught during the second year of veterinary curriculum, and I fell in love with it,” he said in the Human Fertility interview, conducted by Racowsky and Michael C. Summers. “As time went on, I realized I didn’t want to become a practicing veterinary surgeon. I was interested in research and often could be found teaching myself calculus rather than studying some courses that were boring.”

Work and research brought him to the University of Sydney in Australia, then to St. John’s College at Cambridge University. He was a senior lecturer at University College London when he and McClaren published their paper in Nature.

It was “one of the most significant papers in the history of reproductive biology and medicine,” Henry Leese, editor in chief of Human Fertility, wrote in an editorial to mark the 90th birthday of Dr. Biggers. Their research “anticipated the arrival of clinical IVF.”

Dr. Biggers immigrated to the United States at the end of the 1950s and became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1966 he moved to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and in the early 1970s he joined the Harvard Medical School faculty.

Among his honors were the Pioneer Award from the International Embryo Technology Society and the Marshall Medal from the Society for the Study of Fertility. He also formerly served as the leader of the Society for the Study of Reproduction, had been chief scientific adviser to the ethics committee of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and worked with the World Health Organization, consulting on contraceptive research in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.

In her eulogy, Racowsky praised Dr. Biggers for leaving “a legacy of trainees and collaborators who carry on your way of thinking, who always try to do the right thing, and who continue to impart your intrigue and passion of our field to the next generation.”

She added that “equally important as you the scientist and mentor, there was simply you, the man of so many admirable qualities. Sensitive, quiet, humble, and with a tremendous sense of humor. A true friend and confidant. An English gentleman to the core.”

Dr. Biggers and his first wife, Joan Cobbold, had three children. Their marriage ended in divorce. Joan Biggers, who developed advocacy programs for hospital patients, died in 2007.

He subsequently married Betsey Williams, a lecturer in anatomy and embryology at Harvard Medical School. She died in January 2017.

Last year, at 93, Dr. Biggers and Carol Kountz published a biography of Walter Heape, a pioneering British embryologist who died in 1929. And at the beginning of this year, he and Racowsky finished the introductory chapter of a book on in vitro fertilization history that is awaiting publication.

“He never lost his intellectual passion and his love of life – right up to the end,” his daughter Philippa wrote in an e-mail.

A service has been held for Dr. Biggers, who in addition to his daughter leaves his son, David of Canton; his other daughter, Jennifer Biggers Wasserman of Hopkinton, N.H.; four stepsons, Peter Hess of Ithaca, N.Y., Paul Hess of Toronto, Rick Colbath-Hess of Cambridge, and David Hess of New York City; his sister, Jeanne Brook of Devon, England; nine grandchildren; six step-grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

“I always said that growing up, based on your example, I assumed that everyone worked for love and not mainly for money,” Philippa said in her eulogy at last month’s service celebrating his life.

The program for the service quoted Dr. Biggers, from 1981.

“Life never stops. It is a continuous process,” he said then. “In fact, there can be no new beginning to any life on Earth because life on this planet is a continuous process that began more than 3 billion years ago and has passed, generation after generation, from organism to organism ever since. Each new organism, and in a sense, each living cell is merely a temporary participant in this continuum.”

Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.