IVF is 40: First five-day human embryo created

Professor Robert Edwards in 1965
“Dr Edwards examines human ova maturing outside the body in a nutrient medium” – World Medicine Vol. 1 No. 6, December 1965

An exhibition has just opened at the Science Museum to celebrate 40 years of IVF, but the story started ten years earlier.

Professor Robert Edwards later recalled the moment in 1968 when he and Patrick Steptoe first created a five-day embryo:

“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.”

Daily Mail, February 14th 1969
Daily Mail, February 14th 1969

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.”

The story of IVF is being celebrated in an exhibition at the Science Museum 

Louise’s autobiography, “My life as the world’s first test-tube baby”, was first published on 1st August 2015 by Bristol Books and has been updated and is now available in paperback from booksellers and online: My life as the first Test-Tube baby.

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