The Nobel Prize-winner responsible for 8 million babies
When Robert Edwards created the world’s first ‘test tube baby’, he enabled infertile couples across the world to experience the joy of new life. With the offer of his Nobel Prize medal at auction, we look back at his epic struggle to create life in vitro
In the early 1950s, while completing a PhD in animal genetics, the British scientist Robert Edwards had a lightbulb moment that would lead to the birth of more than 8 million babies, as well as a Nobel Prize.
Before then he would spend more than half a century battling with the establishment, who declared his research into in vitro fertilisation unethical.
For Edwards, it would prove the answer to the ultimate question: who is in charge. ‘I wanted to find out whether it was God himself, or the scientists,’ he said.
On 9 December 2020, Christie’s in London will be auctioning online the Nobel Prize medal Edwards won for pioneering IVF in Valuable Books and Manuscripts, with an estimate of £250,000-£350,000.
The spark of an idea
Born in 1925, Edwards developed an interest in new life during the Second World War, when he was evacuated from Manchester to a farm in Yorkshire.
He studied agriculture, then zoology, at the University College of North Wales, moving on to a PhD in genetics at the University of Edinburgh. His breakthrough came when he was working under Alan Beatty, whose work focused on altering chromosomal complements in mouse embryos.
‘He realised that the eggs could mature spontaneously in vitro (in a test tube) at the same rate as in vivo (in a living organism),’ explains Christie’s specialist Sophie Hopkins.
‘He began to wonder if human eggs could do the same — and if that was possible, could they also be fertilised in vitro?’
Edwards spent the next decade quietly developing his theory while moving between research roles at the National Institute for Medical Research (now part of the Francis Crick Institute) in London, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Glasgow and the University of Cambridge.
It wasn’t his lack of belief in the work that held him back, but the constant barriers he faced: the inability to replicate results when transitioning from mouse to monkey eggs, a lack of human tissue available to experiment on, and constant snubbing by the medical establishment.
In 1967 Edwards partnered with Patrick Steptoe, a British gynaecologist and pioneer of keyhole surgery, who was sympathetic to infertile couples. In 1969, a British research nurse, Jean Purdy, joined them.
The team devoted themselves fully to the cause, publishing an article in the scientific journal Nature that same year announcing that, for the first time, the early stages of human fertilisation had been achieved outside the body.
The article, however, sparked furious controversy, with members of the public, religious leaders and the medical establishment questioning the safety, ethics and morality of the work.
The British Medical Association started to draw parallels between the scientist and Dr. Frankenstein — Edwards considered giving up
In 1970, Edwards’ application for funding from the Medical Research Council was declined on the same grounds. When the British Medical Association started to draw parallels between the scientist and Dr. Frankenstein, Edwards sued them for libel.
‘Not for the first time, Edwards considered giving up,’ says Hopkins. ‘But Purdy’s insistence and mounting letters of support from infertile couples kept him going.’
An out-the-blue phone call from an American heiress named Lillian Lincoln Howell, who suffered her own fertility issues, also provided the modern equivalent of half a million pounds to fund more work.
Finally, after almost a decade of failed attempts at delicately transferring a fertilised egg into a human womb, the team won through. Lesley and John Brown, a couple who had been trying for a child for nine years, were expecting a baby after undergoing the first-ever successful IVF procedure.
‘I'll never forget that day I looked down the microscope and saw a human blastocyst gazing up at me’ — Robert Edwards
‘I'll never forget that day I looked down the microscope and saw something funny in the cultures... and what I saw was a human blastocyst gazing up at me. I thought: “We've done it,”’ Edwards recalled.
Louise Joy Brown was born on 25 July 1978, weighing five pounds 12 ounces — a triumph celebrated by the press as the birth of the first ‘test tube baby’. In reality, Purdy had witnessed the crucial moment of embryonic cell separation in a Petri dish.
‘In the years that followed, procedures were undertaken across the world,’ says Hopkins. ‘In 1980, Edwards, Steptoe and Purdy founded Bourn Hall Fertility Clinic in Cambridgeshire, where they continued to refine IVF technology.’
By 1987, 1,000 babies had been born following treatment at the clinic — approximately half of all children born through IVF worldwide at the time.
Outside the clinic, Edwards dedicated considerable energy to related projects, co-founding the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) in 1985. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984, appointed CBE in 1988, and knighted in 2011.
But no award recognised his contribution to science more than his Nobel Prize for Physiology in 2010.
For the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, his work represented ‘a milestone of modern medicine’.
Unfortunately, Edwards wasn’t able to attend the awards ceremony in Stockholm due to declining health. He died in Cambridgeshire in 2013, closely followed by his wife, Ruth, a fellow scientist.
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As a result of his work, infertile couples — an estimated 10 percent of all couples worldwide — now have the same chances of conceiving as a healthy couple.