Robert Edwards

PROFESSOR Sir Robert Edwards, the Yorkshireman who developed in vitro fertility – IVF – treatment that led to the world’s first “test tube” baby, has died aged 87.

It was a chance meeting with Patrick Steptoe, an Oldham gynaecologist and pioneer in keyhole surgery, and their agreement to collaborate, that led to the creation of a fertilised human embryo and eventually to the birth of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby.

Although the treatment was to bring joy to millions of women who could not conceive naturally and might otherwise remain childless, news of their achievement was initially greeted with hostility and it was only their sheer determination that led to them making history.

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The Roman Catholic Church described it as “murder” as their work involved the destruction of fertilised human eggs, many of their medical colleagues shunned them and, in 1971, the Medical Research Council refused to fund their studies. Their work was only able to continue through a private donation from America.

There were many occasions when they were on the verge of giving up, and only continued because they received letters of support from childless couples begging them to continue.

Their ground breaking work in the early 1970s was also a testimony to two other areas of life. Their work was conducted in an unremarkable cottage hospital near Oldham, where Dr Steptoe recruited infertile couples, and for several years Sir Robert travelled from Cambridge several times a week to work with him.

Edwards’ achievements were the product of an education system which allowed gifted children of working class parents to reach their full potential. He was a grammar school boy.

By 1977, after five years of failure, they successfully treated Lesley Brown who, with her husband John, had being trying to conceive a child for 15 years. The birth of Louise in Oldham General Hospital, in 1978 was a world sensation, except at The Vatican which said it would have grave consequences for humanity.

Robert Geoffrey Edwards was born in Batley, one of three sons of a working class family whose father was a railway labourer and mother was a machinist in a local mill.

She came from Manchester where the family moved to and their sons all gained scholarships to Manchester Central High School.

Later in life, while working at Cambridge, he stuck to his roots and beliefs being a Labour councillor for five years.

His academic studies were interrupted by the Second World War and from 1944 to 1948 he served with the Army, mainly in Palestine. When he returned he gained a degree in biological sciences at university in Bangor then studied at Edinburgh University’s Institute of Animal Genetics and Embryology where he took a doctorate in genetics in 1955. He then became a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology and later moved to Glasgow University before, in 1963 going to Cambridge as Ford Foundation Research Fellow in the physiology department, and was a Fellow of Churchill College. He was appointed Reader in physiology in 1969.

His work was eventually accepted by the scientific and medical establishment with his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984, and his appointment to a chair in Human Reproduction at Cambridge the following year.

He was appointed CBE in 1988, and knighted in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to human reproductive biology.

In 2001, he was awarded the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award by the Lasker Foundation for the development of in vitro fertilization, a technological advance that has revolutionized the treatment of human infertility.

In 2007, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Huddersfield University.

When it was announced in October 2010, that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of in-vitro fertilization it was welcomed by colleagues, and the many couples he had helped. Many people the award was long overdue but, again, the Vatican struck a dissenting note describing it as “completely out of order”.

He was the author of numerous scientific papers and author or joint author of many books. He also helped found the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology and its journals which he edited for many years

Along with Dr Steptoe, who died in 1988, he founded the Bourn Hall IVF Clinic, in Cambridgeshire.

Sir Robert is survived by his wife of 57 years, fellow geneticist Ruth Fowler the granddaughter of the physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford, his five daughters and 12 grandchildren.