As a reproductive endocrinologist, Dr. Georgiana M. Jagiello devoted her career to investigating the causes of Down syndrome and understanding the changes that take place in human egg cells as a woman matures. She perfected a technique for harvesting eggs that is now used in in vitro fertilization procedures worldwide, and was part of the team responsible for the first IVF birth in New York City.
Georgiana Jagiello was interested in science from an early age, earning a national science award at Plainville High School in 1944. She attended Boston University College of Liberal Arts on scholarship, and earned her B.A. in 1949. Since finishing medical school at Tufts University School of Medicine in 1955, Dr. Jagiello's career as a reproductive scientist has spanned two continents and almost half a century. In 1964, Dr. Jagiello was the first woman to be appointed to the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. After serving as senior lecturer in genetics at Guy's Hospital, London from 1966 to 1969, she was offered the Prince Philip Chair of Pediatric and Genetic Research. After great deliberation, she declined and returned to the United States. Dr. Jagiello was the first woman appointed to an endowed chair at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
During her work in genetics in London, Dr. Jagiello became interested in the study chromosomes and their connection to Down syndrome. To study chromosomes, she needed to look at eggs. Working with Dr. P.E. Polani, Dr. Jagiello adapted for human use a technique originally used to harvest eggs from small mammals. The first step in the process, which results in gathering about five or six eggs, is to stimulate the maturation of the eggs. Next ovulation is stimulated. Finally the eggs are harvested, using laproscopy.
When Dr. Jagiello returned to the United States in 1970, she continued her research as professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and human genetics at Columbia University, and later as director for University's Center for Reproductive Sciences. It was there, in 1983 that the first IVF baby was born in New York City. Dr. Jagiello recalled, "My job was to set up the lab and the system for obtaining eggs. It was a very team- oriented procedure that involved a great amount of hands-on manipulation of the eggs." Because of her research background, she said, "I knew what healthy human eggs looked like. Not a lot of people did at the time. I saw every embryo that went through here."
Looking back on her work as director of the Center for Reproductive Sciences, she says that "the important thing is to remember the place where you find the most joy. For me that was at my bench looking down through the microscope at my work. This must be the first priority. That way you always have that little piece of happiness each day." For more than forty years, Dr. Jagiello has found great satisfaction as a genetic researcher, seeking the causes of Down syndrome. She hasn't found the answer, but while trying to determine what happens to eggs as women age, Dr. Jagiello perfected a technique for gathering human eggs that is now used in in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures throughout the country and the world.
Dr. Jagiello's search for the causes of Down syndrome led not only to the development of this technique, but also to an increased understanding of environmental factors and chemical exposure on fetal development. Other studies have focused on industrial environmental factors and spontaneous abortions. Much of her research focused on animal studies. The Turkish hamster's seasonal hibernation, for example, coupled with its large number of triploid embryos, made it an ideal research model. Her work with these mammals resulted in over a dozen published articles.
In 1997 she received the Columbia University's Distinguished Service Award. Her continued research on the causes of Down syndrome has led to many scientific accomplishments, but no final answers. "We simply couldn't solve it with the methods of our time," said Dr. Jagiello. "Somewhere there is a small clue which will allow us to develop the technology to ask and answer the right question. I would love to see the answer in my existence."