Farewell Bob Edwards, visionary IVF pioneer

Farewell Bob Edwards, visionary IVF pioneer


The death of British IVF pioneer Bob Edwards marks a life that changed the lives of millions. Since 1978, the year Edwards presided over the first IVF baby, over six million babies have been born thanks to the techniques he developed. The role of his colleague, the laparoscopy expert Patrick Steptoe, should also not be underestimated.

Today, IVF treatment is taken for granted. 1 in 10 couples struggle to conceive. Many have been helped by IVF clinics that would not exist but for Edwards’ work. The technology he spent much of his working life perfecting has brought untold joy to many corners of the world.

Even those that have had IVF will be largely unaware of the obstacles Edwards faced. In theory, the idea of mixing human eggs and sperm, then transferring the developing embryos back into the womb, doesn’t sound that hard. In practice, it posed major challenges.

Edwards had to work out a way to create multiple eggs using hormonal medication. He mastered it, after years of setbacks, working out how to extract eggs safely from the follicles of live human ovaries. He was helped by the ‘keyhole’ technology promoted by Steptoe. The received wisdom was that sperm were only primed for action in the uterus. Thanks to his assistant Barry Bavister, he achieved it using advanced cultivation techniques.

There were human obstacles. In the 1960s, his interest in assisted reproduction was thwarted by his London medical college. He faced right-wing conservatism. He irritated peers by courting the media and addressing the ethical arguments directly. He struggled to get state funding in the 1970s, relying on private donations. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2010.

The IVF process that resulted in the birth of Louise Brown in 1978 was truly groundbreaking. After nine years of infertility, her parents were presented with a healthy child. Human reproduction had changed forever. It is Bob Edwards, the indefatigable inventor of IVF, that we must thank for that.

“Nothing is more special than a child,” Edwards said. He felt the pain and anguish of couples unable to conceive naturally. He fought to defend his work and extol the life-changing effects it could have. We applaud his vision and dedication.

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