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Robert Edwards and the first ‘test tube baby’

Today in vitro fertilization, the fertilizing of eggs outside the body in a petri dish, is often a viable option for infertile couples who are unable to conceive a child, but it didn’t become a reality until July 25, 1978 when Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” was born, due, in large part, to the determination of fertility researcher Robert Edwards.

Edwards, a British physiologist, was born in 1925 in Batley, Yorkshire, England. He began his studies in agriculture at the University College of North Wales (UCNW), after his discharge from the British Army in 1949. He soon became interested in animal reproduction and transferred to the college’s zoology department. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree, then a Doctor of Science degree from UCNW, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Animal Genetics.

During his research career, as early as the 1950s, Edwards became fascinated with the concept of fertilizing human eggs in the laboratory as a potential treatment for human infertility.

Through painstaking and lengthy studies, Edwards came to understand how human eggs could be fertilized outside the body, and developed a cultural medium in which such fertilization could take place,

In 1968, Edwards contacted Dr. Patrick Steptoe, a British gynecologist who was one of the pioneers of laparoscopy, a surgical technique that could enable the eggs to be removed from the ovaries, and a collaboration was born.

While Edwards managed to fertilize a human egg in 1969, the success was very limited, in that the egg failed to develop beyond a single cell division.

The researchers continued their work over the next decade, refining their techniques in an effort to fertilize viable eggs and implant them in the womb. By using the laparoscopic technique, Edwards and Steptoe were able to extract eggs that had matured in the ovaries, providing a better chance for successful in vitro fertilization.

Edwards’ and Steptoe’s work continued for ten years, during which they were criticized on a number of fronts, from arguments that in vitro fertilization was “unnatural” and was, essentially “playing God”, to assertions that the process would create infants that might be deformed and afflicted with terminal illnesses as the result of unsuccessful experimentation.

Nevertheless, the two researchers pressed on. Their perseverance paid off when they were approached by Leslie and John Brown, a couple who had been trying to have a child for nine years. The in vitro fertilization was completed, the fertilized egg was implanted in Leslie Brown’s body and a healthy girl, Louise Brown, was delivered by c-section on July 25, 1978 after a full-term pregnancy.

Edwards and Steptoe founded Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, England in 1980, and trained gynecologists and cell biologists from around the world in the new technique.

Edwards served as scientific director of Bourn Hall Clinic from 1988 to 1991, and as head of research until his retirement, while Steptoe served as medical director until his death in 1988.

Edwards won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his in vitro fertilization work in 2010. Steptoe would presumably have shared the prize, but Nobels are not awarded posthumously.

Edwards died April 10 of this year at the age of 87 at his home near Cambridge, England.

Since the successful birth of Louise Brown in 1978, millions of couples throughout the world have benefited from the work of Robert Edwards and his fellow researcher, Patrick Steptoe.

By Frank Kourt, Staff Writer

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