An exhibition has just opened at the Science Museum to celebrate 40 years of IVF, but the story started ten years earlier with the first blastocyst.
Professor Robert Edwards later recalled the moment in 1968 when he and Patrick Steptoe first created a five-day embryo, the first blastocyst:
“I looked down the microscope and what I saw was a human blastocyst gazing up at me. I thought: ‘We’ve done it.’”
In December 1968 Robert Edwards, together with Barry Bavister and Patrick Steptoe, submitted a paper to Nature in which IVF in humans was described convincingly for the first time.
But it would take ten long years before Edwards, a physiologist, and Steptoe, a gynaecologist, and Jean Purdy research assistant achieved global fame after creating the world’s first test-tube baby.
Steptoe had pioneered the use of the laparoscope. His progress had fallen on deaf ears until Edwards came across a paper he had written describing his experiences and rang Steptoe up to discuss a possible collaboration.
The main motivation for the work was a strong desire to help infertile couples conceive. Edwards said:
“Steptoe and I were deeply affected by the desperation felt by couples who so wanted to have children. We had a lot of critics but we fought like hell for our patients.”
The hostility was summed up by one scientific referee writing on a MRC grant application:
“Dr. Edwards feels the need to publicise his work on radio, television, and in the press, so that he can change public attitudes.
“I do not feel that an ill-informed general public is capable of evaluating the work and seeing it in its proper perspective. This publicity has antagonised a large number of Dr. Edwards’ scientific colleagues, of whom I am one.”