Robert Edwards

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 24 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2600
  1. Peter Braude, emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, King’s College London,
  2. Martin Johnson, professor of reproductive sciences, University of Cambridge
  1. peter.braude{at}

Pioneer of in vitro fertilisation

Bob Edwards was an extraordinarily gifted scientist. Few biologists have had such a positive and practical impact on the future of mankind through their basic research. For it was Bob, his clinical colleague Patrick Steptoe, and laboratory assistant Jean Purdy who in 1978 were to achieve the first birth after in vitro fertilisation (IVF),1 a technique that has brought joy to millions of previously infertile couples.

Rather than a backroom boffin, Bob was immersed completely in the development of clinical progress through his deep understanding of reproductive biology and genetics, his prodigious knowledge of mammalian biology and animal husbandry,2 and his empathy for the plight of the “undeserving infertile.” The possibility that fertilisation could be manipulated or assisted in the laboratory had been mooted by the early experiments of Gregory Pincus, inventor of the oral contraceptive pill, and referred to in a prophetic 1937 editorial entitled “Conception in a watch glass.”3 Bob was passionate about the possibility that infertile couples could be helped by new techniques being developed in the laboratory, and exemplified …

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