How scientists tried to confirm a "virgin birth" long before DNA testing

In the 1950s, geneticist Helen Spurway learned of a woman, Emmimarie Jones, who claimed that her daughter had been born without a father. Spurway had studied parthenogenesis in fish, and was curious as to whether a so-called "virgin birth" was possible in humans. But decades before DNA profiling, how could she confirm or disprove Jones' claim?

The Telegraph has an excerpt from Aarathi Prasad's upcoming book, Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex. In it, Prasad outlines the strange case of Emmimarie Jones:

When the newspaper the Sunday Pictorial published an article in 1955 on Spurway's research on parthenogenesis in guppies, the paper also invited women to come forward with their claims of fatherless conception. Nineteen women came forward, claiming that their daughters had no fathers. Most of the candidates were eliminated quickly, either because they had misunderstood the meaning of parthenogenesis or because their blood types or eye colors did not match that of their daughters. Only one mother-daughter pair remained as a possible product of parthenogenesis: Emmimarie Jones and her 11-year-old daughter, Monica.

Spurway had one final test for the pair. She proposed grafting a piece of Monica's skin onto Emmimarie, and grafting a piece of Emmimarie's skin onto Monica. Her reasoning was that, if Monica possessed only Emmimarie's genes, then Emmimarie's immune system should accept Monica's skin, much like a skin graft between identical twins. Emmimarie's graft from Monica fell off after four weeks, and Monica's graft from Emmimarie fell off after six weeks. An article in The Lancet about the case, written by one Dr. Stanley Balfour-Lynn, concluded that the pairs' genes did not match perfectly since the skin grafts failed.

We don't have tissue samples for Emmimarie or Monica, so we can't subject them to modern DNA testing. However, geneticists have learned a great deal about the mechanisms of human conception and development since then, and found that complete natural parthenogenesis is impossible in humans.

The full piece in the Telegraph tells the more complete story of the Jones case, including how Emmimarie likely became pregnant despite her apparent conviction that Monica had no father. It also details an extremely rare and fascinating instance of partial parthenogenesis in a human being.

Top photo from Photo: Mirrorpix & British Library Newspapers. More clippings available at the Telegraph.

The modern-day virgin birth [Telegraph via Neatorama]