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Medical Marvels: IVF

Sir Robert Edwards, who with Dr Patrick Steptoe pioneered in vitro fertilisation in the 1960s and 70s, has passed away aged 87. Edwards’ work in the field of human fertility has changed many, many lives, with IVF now used all over the world to help women to conceive.

Born in 1925 in Batley, Yorkshire, Edwards spent the Second World War serving in the British Army, before returning home to study agriculture and zoology at the University of Bangor in Wales. After graduating in 1951, he went on to study at the University of Edinburgh, from where he gained a doctorate in genetics in 1955.

Around this time, Edwards began to explore the possibility of fertilising a human egg cell outside of the female body. Earlier research into animal genetics had allowed scientists to fertilise rabbit eggs in a test tube, but applying these methods to humans took many years of hard work.

Then, in 1968, came the breakthrough Edwards had been waiting for. Working with Steptoe, Edwards was able to fertilise a human egg in laboratory conditions, growing the cells in Petri dishes until the embryo reached the blastocyst stage. This was a major achievement, one that took the scientists considerably closer to their goal: a reliable, safe method of IVF. However, it would be another decade before their dream would be fully realised.

As research continued, the duo attracted massive opposition from a variety of groups and institutions – from the Catholic Church, to scientists who feared that any children born from IVF would suffer deformities or other major health problems. But while early trials with lab-fertilised blastocysts failed for various reasons, Edwards and Steptoe eventually perfected their techniques, and in 1978 the world’s first ‘test tube baby’ was born. Named Louise, her parents John and Lesley Brown had been trying to conceive for 9 years.

To date, over 5 million babies have been born via IVF – a sizable legacy for Edwards’ trailblazing work. In 2010, Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and in 2011 his achievements received further recognition in the form of a knighthood. IVF has brought happiness to millions of couples like John and Lesley Brown, and has helped ensure that infertility does not have to be a barrier to having children.