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Patrick Steptoe (1913-88) and Robert Edwards (1925-)

Louise Brown came kicking and screaming into the world on 28 July 1978. Her birth was a landmark in reproductive medicine. She was known as the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’, the first child born as a result of in vitro fertilisation (IVF). The technique was developed by two British researchers: gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and physiologist Robert Edwards. IVF remains a major infertility treatment. Over the last 30 years it has resulted in more than 3 million births worldwide.

Both Steptoe and Edwards worked in the field of reproductive health before their collaboration in 1966, and were especially interested in problems of human fertility. Edwards had developed a way to fertilise human eggs within the laboratory; Steptoe had perfected a method for obtaining human eggs from the ovaries using a laparoscope, a long, thin telescopic instrument. Combining these skills enabled them to produce mature eggs at the optimum time to improve chances for successful fertilisation and development.

The pair were accused of meddling with nature, like Gregory Pincus before them. Criticism continued after the birth of Louise Brown. However, the technique spread and the number of babies born by IVF rapidly increased. Steptoe and Edwards were showered with awards. IVF gave hope to women who would otherwise have remained childless, though it is still controversial. It is highly interventionist, and can be painful and expensive. Success rates remain low.

 

Related links

Techniques and Technologies:

Bibliography

R Edwards and P Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough (London: Hutchinson, 1980)

R Edwards and P Steptoe, ‘Birth after the reimplantation of a human embryo, The Lancet, Vol. 2 1978 p 366

R Henig, Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004)

Glossary:

Gynaecology

A branch of medicine dealing with the treatment of disorders affecting the female reproductive system.