Ivanov Develops Artificial Insemination

Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov developed practical techniques for the artificial insemination of farm animals, revolutionizing livestock breeding practices throughout the world.

Summary of Event

A tale is told of a fourteenth century Arabian chieftain who sought to improve his mediocre breed of horses. Sneaking into the territory of a neighboring hostile tribe, he stimulated a prize stallion to ejaculate into a piece of cotton. Quickly returning home, he inserted this cotton into the vagina of one of his own mares, who subsequently gave birth to a high-quality horse. This may have been the first case of artificial insemination, the technique by which semen is introduced into the female reproductive tract without sexual contact. Artificial insemination
Genetics;artificial insemination
Medicine;artificial insemination
Animal breeding
[kw]Ivanov Develops Artificial Insemination (1901)
[kw]Artificial Insemination, Ivanov Develops (1901)
[kw]Insemination, Ivanov Develops Artificial (1901)
Artificial insemination
Genetics;artificial insemination
Medicine;artificial insemination
Animal breeding
[g]Russia;1901: Ivanov Develops Artificial Insemination[00080]
[c]Science and technology;1901: Ivanov Develops Artificial Insemination[00080]
[c]Biology;1901: Ivanov Develops Artificial Insemination[00080]
[c]Health and medicine;1901: Ivanov Develops Artificial Insemination[00080]
[c]Genetics;1901: Ivanov Develops Artificial Insemination[00080]
Ivanov, Ilya Ivanovich
Spallanzani, Lazzaro
Kunitsky, R. W.

The first scientific record of artificial insemination comes from Italy in the 1770’s. Lazzaro Spallanzani was one of the foremost physiologists of his time, well known for having disproved the theory of spontaneous generation. There was some disagreement at that time about the basic requirements for reproduction in animals. It was unclear if the sex act was necessary for an embryo to develop, or if it was sufficient that the sperm and eggs come into contact. Spallanzani was familiar with the work of Jacobi, who had suggested in 1742 that the sex act was not necessary for reproduction. Jacobi had been able to breed young fish by combining the sex cells of male and female fish in a glass dish. Spallanzani also began by studying animals in which union of the sperm and egg normally takes place outside the body of the female. He stimulated males and females to release their sperm and eggs, then mixed these sex cells in a glass dish. In this way, he produced young frogs, toads, salamanders, and silkworms.

Next, Spallanzani asked whether the sex act was also unnecessary for reproduction in those species in which fertilization normally takes place inside the body of the female. He collected semen that had been ejaculated by a male spaniel and, using a syringe, injected the semen into the vagina of a female spaniel in heat. Two months later, the female delivered a litter of three pups that bore some resemblance to both the mother and the male from which Spallanzani had collected the sperm. Spallanzani was justifiably proud of this accomplishment, but despite his obvious pleasure at the results, he apparently did no other work in this field.

British surgeon John Hunter Hunter, John reported that he had used Spallanzani’s technique to impregnate a woman whose husband could not ejaculate directly into her vagina, but he was not uniformly believed. In an era when obstetrical care was provided by midwives, the idea of a male physician in the bedchamber sounded suspicious. James Marion Sims, Sims, James Marion who tried this technique on an infertile patient in 1866, was likewise discouraged by his American colleagues.

It was in animal breeding that Spallanzani’s technique was to have its most dramatic application. In the 1880’s, an English dog breeder, Sir Everett Millais, conducted several experiments on artificial insemination. He was interested mainly in obtaining progeny from dogs that would not normally mate with each other because of differences in size. He followed Spallanzani’s method to produce a cross between the short-legged basset hound and the much larger bloodhound. At about the same time, several French and American horse breeders were using artificial insemination sporadically to overcome certain types of infertility in their mares.

Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov was a Russian biologist who had conducted postgraduate research on the accessory sex glands of animals. He may have heard of the successful artificial insemination of horses when he worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris from 1897 to 1898. Upon returning to Russia, he published a historical essay titled “Artificial Impregnation in Mammals,” which showed his familiarity with the work of Spallanzani as well as that of contemporary animal breeders. Although these techniques were widely used for fish breeding in Russia at the time, they were not used at all in the breeding of farm animals. Ivanov saw the potential to increase the efficiency of horse breeding, and he was commissioned by the government to investigate the use of artificial insemination with horses.

Unlike previous researchers and breeders who had used artificial insemination to circumvent certain anatomical barriers to fertilization, Ivanov began using artificial insemination to propagate thoroughbred horses more effectively. His assistant in this work was the veterinarian R. W. Kunitsky. In 1901, Ivanov founded the Experimental Station for the Artificial Insemination of Horses in Dolgoe village in the province of Orlovskaya. As the station’s director, he embarked on a series of experiments to devise the most efficient techniques for breeding these animals.

Not content with demonstrating that the technique was scientifically feasible, he wished to ensure further that it could be practiced by Soviet farmers. If sperm from a male were to be used to impregnate females in another location, potency would have to be maintained for a long time. Ivanov first showed that the secretions from the accessory sex glands are not required for successful insemination; only the sperm itself is necessary. He demonstrated further that if a testis is removed from a bull and kept cold, the sperm remain alive. More useful than preservation of testes, however, would be preservation of the ejaculated sperm. By adding certain salts to the sperm-containing fluids and keeping these at cold temperatures, Ivanov was able to preserve sperm for long periods. With sperm preserved in this way, Ivanov was able to impregnate a female with sperm from a male living at another location.

Because of the novelty of this technique, Ivanov was concerned that the offspring of such artificial breeding might be abnormal. His subsequent observations eliminated this worry; the offspring of artificial breeding grew and developed at the same rates as did normally bred animals.

Ivanov also developed instruments to inject the sperm, to hold the vagina open during insemination, and to hold the horse in place during the procedure. In 1910, Ivanov wrote a practical textbook with technical instructions for the artificial insemination of horses. He also trained some three hundred veterinary technicians in the use of artificial insemination, and the knowledge he developed was quickly disseminated throughout the Soviet Union. Artificial insemination became the major means of breeding horses.

An experiment begun in 1901 was to have even farther-reaching effects. In that year, Ivanov petitioned the Department of Agriculture for permission to attempt artificial insemination of cows. Initially turned down, Ivanov eventually obtained permission to purchase ten cows, which he housed at the Moscow College of Agriculture. The following year, he produced two calves by artificial insemination of these cows. At the Moscow Zoo, he obtained two sheep, which were also artificially inseminated the same year. In 1910, Ivanov had the opportunity to embark on a large-scale study of sheep breeding by artificial insemination in Askania-Nova. Over the next twenty years, more than one million ewes were artificially inseminated using the techniques he developed.

Until his death in 1932, Ivanov was active in researching many aspects of the reproductive biology of animals. He developed methods to treat reproductive diseases of farm animals and refined methods of obtaining, evaluating, diluting, preserving, and disinfecting sperm. He also began to produce hybrids of wild and domestic animals in the hope of producing new breeds that would be better able to withstand extreme climatic conditions and that would be more resistant to disease. His crosses included hybrids of ordinary cows with aurochs, bison, and yaks, as well as some more exotic crosses of zebras with Przhevalsky’s horses. He hoped to use artificial insemination to help preserve species that were in danger of becoming extinct. In 1926, he led an expedition to West Africa to experiment with the hybridization of different species of anthropoid apes.


Although Ivanov worked on the artificial insemination of a variety of species, his work on cattle and sheep had the greatest impact. By 1936, more than six million cattle and sheep had been artificially inseminated in the Soviet Union. Despite the success of the technique, several decades elapsed before artificial insemination was used on a large scale in other countries. In the United States, Enos J. Perry Perry, Enos J. began the first large-scale facility for artificial insemination in New Jersey in 1938, having learned the techniques while on a tour of Denmark.

Research subsequent to Ivanov’s work has improved further the methods used to collect sperm and to preserve it. The greatest beneficiaries of these techniques have been dairy farmers. Some bulls are able to sire genetically superior cows that produce exceptionally large volumes of milk. Under natural conditions, such a bull could father at most a few hundred offspring in its lifetime. Using artificial insemination, a prize bull can inseminate ten to fifteen thousand cows each year. This use of superior sperm can continue even after a male’s death if the semen is kept frozen. Artificial insemination also prevents the possibility that a female infected with a venereal disease will spread the infection to a prize male. For dairy farmers, artificial insemination also means that they no longer need to keep dangerous bulls on the farm; frozen sperm may be purchased through the mail. Artificial insemination has become the main method of reproduction of dairy cows.

In the 1980’s, artificial insemination gained added importance as a method of breeding rare animals. Animals living in zoos often lack the behavioral repertoire necessary for normal mating, but males may still produce normal sperm that can be used to inseminate females artificially. Some species require specific conditions of housing or diet for breeding to occur, conditions not available in all zoos. Such animals can still reproduce using artificial insemination. Elephants also are frequently artificially inseminated, allowing zoos to house only females and their offspring and not the more difficult-to-handle males.

Artificial insemination has also proved effective in treating various types of infertility in humans. Although it had been used occasionally before Ivanov’s time, the widespread use of artificial insemination in the human species was possible only after it was clear that it was successful in animals and that the offspring so conceived were not abnormal in any way. Artificial insemination
Genetics;artificial insemination
Medicine;artificial insemination
Animal breeding

Further Reading

  • Asdell, S. A. “Historical Introduction.” In Reproduction in Domestic Animals, edited by H. H. Cole and P. T. Cupps. 3d ed. New York: Academic Press, 1977. A brief overview of the development of the knowledge of reproductive biology over the centuries. Includes mention of Ivanov and others involved in the advancement of artificial insemination. Includes extensive references to the scientific literature.
  • Bearden, H. Joe, and John W. Fuquay. Applied Animal Reproduction. 2d ed. Reston, Va.: Reston, 1984. Provides an in-depth explanation of the modern techniques used to manipulate reproduction in farm animals. Particularly useful for its liberal illustrations, including photographs of the instruments and techniques used in the artificial insemination of cattle. Includes references.
  • Foote, Robert H. Artificial Insemination to Cloning: Tracing Fifty Years of Research. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 1998. Covers the tremendous changes that have taken place in animal reproduction technologies since artificial insemination was first developed. Provides information from 489 abstracts covering research on artificial insemination in dairy cattle, rabbits, horses, sheep, and other animals as well as humans.
  • _______. “The History of Artificial Insemination: Selected Notes and Notables.” Journal of Animal Science 80, e-supp. 2 (2002). http://www.asas.org/ symposia/esupp2/Footehist.pdf. Reviews the history of artificial insemination, particularly in dairy cattle. Cites major landmarks in development of the technique and notes the people most closely associated with those landmarks. References cited include many classic studies.
  • Perry, Enos J. The Artificial Insemination of Farm Animals. 4th ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1968. Perry published this volume thirty years after he began the first organization in the United States to perform artificial insemination on a large scale. In addition to chapters on the techniques current at that time, a chapter is devoted to the historical background of artificial insemination. References are given to original papers, most of which are not in English.
  • Polge, C. “Increasing Reproductive Potential in Farm Animals.” In Artificial Control of Reproduction. Book 5 in Reproduction in Mammals, edited by C. R. Austin and R. V. Short. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Contains clear descriptions of the technique of artificial insemination as well as drawings of the procedure being carried out on farm animals. Emphasizes the advances in artificial insemination since the time of Ivanov, including methods for long-term preservation of sperm, which were pioneered by Polge.
  • Poynter, F. N. L. “Hunter, Spallanzani, and the History of Artificial Insemination.” In Medicine, Science, and Culture, edited by L. G. Stevenson and R. P. Multhauf. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968. An engaging sketch of early workers in the field of artificial insemination. Includes biographical material on Spallanzani and Hunter as well as a discussion of the controversy engendered in the United States by the work of James Marion Sims.

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