ROBERT EDWARDS: NOBEL LAUREATE IN
PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE
Nobel Lecture/Nobel Prize Symposium in Honour of
Robert G. Edwards, December 7, 2010
MARTIN H. JOHNSON
Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK.
Today we are here to celebrate the achievements of Robert Edwards. It is
however a celebration tinged with sadness. Sadness that Bob himself is not
well enough to be here in person, so in preparing this lecture, I have tried to
weave into it some of Bob’s written and spoken words. Sadness also that nei-
ther Patrick Steptoe (1913–1988; Fig. 1)  nor Jean Purdy (1946–1985; Fig.
2) , two of his key collaborators, are alive to celebrate with him.
TO BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING
Robert Geoffrey Edwards was born on the 27
of September 1925 in the
the second of three brothers − an older brother, Sammy and a younger,
Harry. These brothers Bob describes as competitive, “all determined to win
or, if not to win, to go down ﬁghting” . Bob’s mother, Margaret, was a
machinist in a local mill. She came originally from Manchester, to where
the family relocated when Bob was about 5, and where he was educated. In
those days, bright working class kids could take a scholarship exam at age
10 or 11 in competition for the few coveted places at a grammar school: the
potential pathway out of poverty and even to University. All three brothers
passed the exam, but Sammy decided against Grammar School, preferring
to leave education as soon as he could to start earning. His mother was
furious at this wasted opportunity, and so when her two younger sons passed
the exam, there was no question but that they would continue in education.
So it was that Bob progressed in 1937 to Manchester Central Boy’s High
School, which, incidentally, also claims Sir James Chadwick, FRS (1891–
1974), another Cambridge professor and Nobel Laureate (in Physics in 1935
for discovery of the neutron ), as a former pupil. Bob’s summers were
spent in the Yorkshire Dales, where their mother took her sons to be closer to
their father’s place of work. There Bob laboured on the farms and developed
an enduring love for the place.
* At the Nobel Prize Symposium in Honour of Robert G. Edwards, Martin H. Johnson delivered this lecture.
These early experiences were formative for Bob. He became a life–long
egalitarian, for ﬁve years a Labour Party councillor , willing to listen to
and to talk with all and sundry, regardless of class, education, status and
background. Second, he developed an enduring love for and curiosity about
natural history and especially the reproductive patterns that he observed
among the farm’s sheep, pigs and cattle in the Dales. Finally, he took great
pride in being a ‘Yorkshire man’ – with traditional attributes of affability
and generosity of spirit combined with no-nonsense blunt-speaking. Indeed,
following his only meeting with Gregory Pincus (1903–1967)  at a confer-
ence in Venice in May 1966, at which Bob, the young pretender, clashed with
the ‘father of the pill’ over the timing of egg maturation in humans, Bob
paid Pincus the biggest compliment he could imagine, saying “He would
have made a ﬁne Yorkshireman!” .
(courtesy Barbara Rankin).
(courtesy Andrew Steptoe).
The aftermath of war was to provide an extended interruption to Bob’s
education: when he left school in 1943, he was conscripted into the British
Army for almost four years. To his surprise as someone who was from a
working class family, he was identiﬁed as potential ofﬁcer material and sent
on an ofﬁcer-training course, before being commissioned in 1946 (Fig. 3).
However, the alien life-style of the ofﬁcers’ mess was not to his taste and
served to reinforce his socialist ideals. The years in the army were broken by
9 months compassionate leave back in the Dales, to which he was released to
help out when his farmer friend there became ill. So engaged did he become
in farming life that, after discharge from the army in 1948, he returned
home to Manchester, from where he applied to read agricultural sciences at
the University College of North Wales at Bangor.
Figure 3. Bob on National Service,1940s (courtesy Ruth
Having gained a place and a grant to fund it, the 6 or so months that
intervened were occupied in a Government desk job in Salford, Greater
Manchester, work experience that reinforced the attractions of agricultural
science. So his disappointment in the course offered at Bangor was acute. By
that time he was an experienced 23 year old, described by his impressionable
18 year old public-school educated and self-described “unlikely” friend John
Slee (Fig. 4), as being “both ambitious and ﬂexible, and unusually conﬁdent
in his own judgement” . And in Bob’s conﬁdent judgement, the course
on offer was not ‘scientiﬁc’, and he was bored through two tedious years
of agricultural descriptions, after which he reported that his teachers were
“glad to see the back of him” in Zoology for a year. The Zoology Department
offered a course much more to his style and led by the more intellectually
challenging Rogers Brambell, FRS (1901–1970) . However, that year was
not enough to salvage an honours degree, and in 1951, aged 26 he gained
a simple pass. Unbeknown to him at the time, he was not alone in this
undistinguished academic embarrassment, as neither “Tibby” Marshall, FRS
(1878–1949), the founder of the Reproductive Sciences , nor Sir Alan
Parkes, FRS (1900–1990), the ﬁrst Professor of Reproductive Sciences at
Cambridge , and who was later to recruit Bob there, distinguished them-
selves as undergraduates. In 1951, however, Bob “was disconsolate. It was a
disaster. My grants were spent and I was in debt. Unlike some of the students
I had no rich parents… I could not write home, ‘Dear Dad, please send me
£100 as I did badly in the exams.’” .
Characteristically, however, Bob’s low spirits did not last long. He learned
that John Slee had been accepted on a Diploma course in Animal Genetics
at Edinburgh University under Conrad Waddington, FRS (1905–1975) .
Bob applied, and, despite his pass degree and to his amazement, he was
accepted. That summer, he worked in various labouring jobs to earn enough
to pay his way in Edinburgh . It is tempting to see in these experiences
of the youthful Bob Edwards consequences for his later approach to life: he
learned that the accepted hierarchies of organisation and ideas were there to
be challenged, not simply accepted, and that recovery was possible after what
might seem the severest of knock-backs. These were lessons that Bob was to
draw on later in his career.
In Edinburgh, Bob not only started to map out his scientiﬁc career, but
importantly also met Ruth Fowler (Fig. 5), who was to become his life-long
scientiﬁc collaborator, and whom he was to marry in 1954, their ﬁve daugh-
ters following between 1959 and 1964: Caroline, Sarah, Jenny, and twins,
Anna and Meg. Bob initially found himself somewhat overwhelmed, even
“intimidated” by Ruth’s august family background. Her father, Sir Ralph
Fowler, FRS (1889–1944) , and her maternal grandfather, Lord Ernest
Rutherford, FRS (1871–1937) , were not only both ‘titled’, but both
also had the most impressive academic credentials imaginable. Ralph Fowler
was Plummer Professor of Mathematical Physics in Cambridge from 1932 to
1944, whilst Rutherford was the ﬁrst Nobel Laureate in Ruth’s family, having
been awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry ‘for his investigations
into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive
Figure 5. Ruth Fowler in laboratory, Edinburgh, 1950s (courtesy Ruth Edwards).
BOB EDWARDS, THE RESEARCH SCIENTIST
The intellectual spirit of scientiﬁc enquiry that Bob experienced in
Edinburgh obviously ﬁtted his aptitudes perfectly, for Waddington rewarded
his Diploma year with a three year PhD place and funded it with the princely
sum of £240.00 per year . Bob’s chosen ﬁeld of research was the develop-
mental biology of the mouse. Bob saw that to understand development
involved engaging in an interdisciplinary mix, not just of embryology and
reproduction, the conventional view at the time, but also of genetics. Given
the scientiﬁc and social emphasis on genetics over the last 40 or so years, it
is difﬁcult now to realise how advanced a view this was in the 1950s, when
genetic knowledge was still rudimentary and largely alien to the established
developmental and reproductive biologists of the day, as Bob himself was
later to comment . For example, it was in the 1950s that DNA was estab-
lished as the molecular carrier of genetic information [19–22], that it was
ﬁrst demonstrated that each cell of the body carried a full set of DNA/genes
[23–25], and that genes were selectively expressed as mRNA to generate
different cell phenotypes . Perhaps of greater importance for Bob at that
time, it was only by the late 1950s that cytogenetic studies led to the accepted
human karyotype as 46 chromosomes [27–28], that agreement was reached
on the Denver system of classiﬁcation of human chromosomes , and that
the chromosomal aneuploidies underlying developmental anomalies such as
Down, Turner and Klinefelter Syndromes were described [30–32].
Figure 6. Alan Gates at a meeting in Cambridge in the late
1950s (possibly 1957).
Bob worked under his supervisor, Alan Beatty, to generate haploid,
triploid and aneuploid mouse embryos and studied their potential for normal
‘genetic engineering’ in mammals, he needed to be able to manipulate the
chromosomal composition of eggs, sperm and embryos. Whilst in mice,
sperm were abundant, eggs were not, and overcoming this deﬁcit led him
to two major discoveries that proved to be of later signiﬁcance. First, with
Ruth, they worked to devise ways of increasing the numbers of synchronised
eggs recoverable from adult female mice through a series of papers on the
control of ovulation induced by use of exogenous hormones . In doing
so, they overturned the conventional wisdom that super-ovulation of adult
females was not possible. Second, working with an American post-doc, Alan
Gates (Fig. 6), Bob described the remarkable timed sequence of egg chromo-
somal maturation events that led up to ovulation after injection of the ovula-
tory hormone (human chorionic gonadotrophin; hCG) . His six years,
between 1951 and 1957, in Edinburgh give an early taste of his prodigious
energy, resulting in 38 papers. Indeed so productive was this period that the
last of the papers resulting from his Edinburgh work did not appear in print
It was also in Edinburgh that Bob’s interest in ethics was ﬁrst sparked
by the interdisciplinary debates among scientists and theologians that
Waddington organised, and, as a result, Bob went on what he describes as a
“church crawl”, trying the ten of so variants of Christianity on offer in 1950s
Edinburgh. He did not emerge from his consumer testing “God-intoxicated”
, but convinced that man held his own future in his own hands. Bob’s
humanist ethical sympathies were to be developed further in all his later
AN AMERICAN DIVERSION
These early 1950s studies in science and ethics were to form the platform
on which Bob’s later IVF work was to be based, but before that his interests
and life took a diversion to the California Institute of Technology for the
year 1957–8. Bob describes his year at CalTech as being “a bit of a holiday”,
but it was a holiday which, with hindsight, had distracting consequences. He
went there to work with Albert Tyler (1906–1968) , an inﬂuential elder
statesman of American reproductive science, working on sperm–egg interac-
tions. CalTech was then a hotbed of developmental biology, and Tyler had
clustered around him an exciting group of young scientists, which included
that year a visit by the English doyen of fertilisation, Lord Victor Rothschild,
FRS (1910–1990) , who was later to clash scientiﬁcally with Edwards over
his IVF work . In this clash, needless to say, the younger man triumphed
, just as he had with Pincus. Tyler was exploring the molecular speciﬁc-
ity of egg–sperm interactions and had turned as a model to immunology.
Immunology was then at a very exciting phase in its development, with the
engaging Sir Peter Medawar, FRS (1915–1987, Nobel Laureate in Physiology
or Medicine, 1960) , inﬂuentially for Bob, extending his ideas on im-
munological tolerance to the paradox of the ‘fetus as an allograft’: a semi-
paternal graft nonetheless somehow protected from maternal immune
attack inside the mother’s uterus. This conﬂuence of reproduction and
immunology excited Bob’s restless curiosity and hence the choice of Tyler.
The subject also offered funding possibilities via the Ford and Rockefeller
Foundations and the Population Council, which were increasingly
concerned about world population growth and the need for better methods
So when Bob returned to the UK from CalTech in 1958 at Alan Parkes’
invitation to join him at the Medical Research Council (MRC) National
Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Mill Hill in north London, it was to
work on the science of immuno-contraception . This period in the USA
initiated a series of 24 papers on the immunology of reproduction between
1960 and 1976. It also prompted Bob’s ﬁrst involvement in founding an
international society in 1967 in Varna, Bulgaria when the International
Coordinating Committee for the Immunology of Reproduction was created
. It was, in retrospect, to prove a distracting diversion from what was
to become Bob’s main work, albeit one that continued to enthuse Bob for
many years, witnessed not least by my own recruitment to enter this ﬁeld
of study with him as a graduate student in 1966. Nonetheless, the period at
Mill Hill, between 1958 and 1962, seems to have been a period of increasing
intellectual conﬂict for Bob. Whilst enthusiastically working on the science
underlying immuno-contraception, his old interests in eggs, fertilisation
and, in particular, the genetics of development were gradually reasserting
themselves. His day job was therefore increasingly supplemented by evening
and weekend ﬂirtations with egg maturation.
THE CRUCIAL EGG MATURATION STUDIES
Bob claims that the stimulus reawakening his interests in eggs was provided
by the then recent consensus about the number of human chromosomes
and, more particularly the descriptions in 1959 of the pathologies in man
that resulted from chromosomal anomalies . Might these anomalies
result from errors in the complex chromosomal dance that he and Alan
Gates had observed in maturing mouse eggs? The possible clinical relevance
of his work on egg maturation and aneuploidy in the mouse was becoming
So Bob resumed his experimenting with mice, trying to mimic in vitro the
ovarian follicles into culture medium containing the ovulatory hormone
hCG, to see whether he could simulate their in vivo development. Amazingly
he found it worked the ﬁrst time: but it did so whether or not the hormone
had been added. It seemed that the eggs were maturing spontaneously when
released from their follicles. And the same happened in rats and hamsters.
If this also happened in humans, then the study of the chromosomal dance
during human egg maturation was a realistic practical possibility, as was in
vitro fertilisation and thereby studies on the genetics of early human develop-
ment. However, Bob’s excitement at seeing eggs spontaneously maturing
was temporarily blunted by his discovery that Gregory Pincus in the 1930s
[43–44] and M.C. Chang (1908–1991) [45–46] in the 1950s had been there
before him, using both rabbit and, Pincus claimed, human eggs.
In order to pursue his basic science studies on maturation, he needed a
reliable supply of human ovarian eggs. This requirement posed difﬁculties
for a scientist with no medical qualiﬁcations, given the elitist attitudes and
scientiﬁc illiteracy then prevalent amongst most of the UK’s gynaecologists.
His break-through came initially with Molly Rose, at whose door in the
nearby Edgeware General Hospital he arrived after a recommendation from
a fellow kindred spirit in John Humphrey, FRS (1915–1997) , ten years
Bob’s senior and the medically qualiﬁed Head of Immunology at Mill Hill.
Notwithstanding his more privileged social background, Humphrey shared
Bob’s passion for science, its social application and utility, and his left wing
politics – indeed he had been a Marxist until 1940. Bob asked John if he
knew anyone who might be helpful, and John suggested Molly Rose and
offered to arrange an introduction. So off Bob went, and Molly Rose
provided human ovarian biopsy samples intermittently for the next ten years.
tions, using not only human but also dog, monkey and baboon eggs, but with
such limited success compared with smaller rodents that in a 1962 Nature
paper , he carefully interprets the few maturing human and baboon eggs
that he observed as artefacts. But by this time, Bob’s quest for human eggs,
and his dreams of IVF and studying early aneuploidies in human embryos,
had reached hostile ears, most notably those of the then Director of the
Institute, Sir Charles Harington, FRS (1897–1972), who banned any work
on human IVF at NIMR . Alan Parkes was no longer able to defend Bob,
having left in 1961 to take up his chair in Cambridge and, although he had
asked Bob to join him, there was no post until 1963. By the time Bob left
Mill Hill in 1962 for a year in Glasgow, he had encountered just a taste of the
opposition to come.
THE MOVE TO CAMBRIDGE
Bob had been invited to Glasgow University’s Biochemistry Department by
John Paul, then the acknowledged master of tissue culture in the UK, who
had heard of Bob’s attempts to generate stem cells from rabbit embryos .
The invitation was to result in a paper  remarkable for its prescience –
the ﬁrst of eight landmark papers (Table 1) that I identify in this contribution.
It describes the production of embryonic stem cells from rabbit embryos –
capable of proliferating through over 100 generations and of differentiating
into various cell types. This report was published some 18 years before Evans
and Kaufman described the derivation of ES cells from mouse embryos .
That this work has largely been ignored by those in the stem cell ﬁeld is prob-
ably mainly attributable to its being too far ahead of its time. Thus, reliable
molecular markers for different types of cells were not available then, nor
were appropriate techniques with which to critically test the developmental
potential of the cultured cells.
and cell strains derived from cleaving ova and blastocysts of the rabbit.
(1965) Maturation in vitro of human ovarian oocytes.
Edwards R.G. (1968) Control of the sex ratio at full
term in the rabbit by transferring sexed blastocysts. Nature 218:
Bavister B.D., Steptoe P.C. (1969) Early stages of fertili-
zation in vitro of human oocytes matured in vitro. Nature 221: 632–5.
Edwards R.G. (1970) Laparoscopic recovery of preovu-
latory human oocytes after priming of ovaries with gonadotrophins.
Edwards R.G., Purdy JM. (1971) Human blastocysts
grown in culture. Nature 229: 132–3.
Sharpe DJ. (1971) Social values and research in human
embryology. Nature 231: 87–91.
Edwards R.G. (1978) Birth after the reimplantation of a
human embryo. Lancet 312: 366.
Bob arrived in Cambridge from Glasgow in 1963. He describes how he
immediately reacted against the then extant “misogynist public-school tradi-
tions; the exclusivity…; the privileges given to the already privileged”. But he
set against that the “sheer beauty of the place… the concern with the truth
and high seriousness… the ambience of scientiﬁc excellence… I was sur-
rounded by so many talented young men and women.”  He continued to
pursue both the immunology of reproduction and egg maturation, working
furiously on the latter to collect pig, cow, sheep, the odd monkey and some
human eggs. Eventually, he was able to show that eggs of all these species
would indeed mature in vitro, but that the eggs of larger animals simply
needed longer than those of smaller ones, human eggs taking some 36 hours
rather than the 12 or less hours erroneously reported by Pincus . These
cytogenetic studies were reported in two seminal papers in 1965 [53–54],
both of which are primarily concerned with understanding the kinetics of
the meiotic chromosomal events. As the second landmark paper, I have selected
the one in The Lancet, in which Bob’s breath-taking clarity of vision is evident
as he sets out a programme of research that predicted the events of the next
20 years and beyond (Table 2). You will notice the heavy focus on the early
study and detection of genetic disease compared with the slight emphasis on
infertility alleviation, unsurprising given Bob’s research interests. Indeed,
within three years he had, with my fellow graduate student Richard Gardner,
provided proof of principle for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD),
in a paper on rabbit embryo sexing published in 1968  and my third
the development of PGD clinically , and PGD was to prove a powerful
political tool in convincing the UK Parliament to permit research on human
embryos. And then by 1969 he had reported the ﬁrst step towards PGD in
humans by describing IVF  – a fourth landmark paper in as many years.
Table 2. Key points in the programme of research laid out in the Discussion to
Edwards’ 1965 Lancet paper (landmark paper 2) .
1. Studies on non-disjunction of meiotic chromosomes as a cause of
aneuploidy in humans.
2. Studies on the effect of maternal age on non-disjunction in relation
to the origins of trisomy 21.
3. Use of human eggs in IVF.
4. Culture of fertilised human eggs in vitro.
5. Use of priming hormones to increase the number of eggs per wom-
an available for study/use.
Study of early IVF embryos for evidence of (ab)normality – especially
7. Control of some of the genetic diseases in man.
8. Control of sex-linked disorders by sex detection at blastocyst stage
and transfer of only female embryos.
9. Para-cervical transfer of IVF embryos into the uterus.
10. Use of IVF embryos to circumvent blocked tubes.
11. Avoidance of a multiple pregnancy (as observed after hormonal
priming and in vivo insemination) by transfer of a single IVF embryo.
THE PROBLEM OF FERTILISATION RESOLVED
Underlying both the 1965 and 1969 papers are two scientiﬁc struggles: the
ﬁrst being simply but critically the continuing difﬁculty in obtaining a regular
supply of ovarian tissue. Local Cambridge sources proved unreliable, and
Molly Rose was now 2–3 hours’ drive away in north-west London, so during
the summer of 1965, Bob turned to the USA for help and initiated his now
famous contacts with Howard and Georgeanna Jones , then at the Johns
Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. This supply of American eggs allowed
Bob to conﬁrm the maturation timings published in 1965 . However, it
was the second struggle that was by then occupying most of his attention,
namely that in order to fertilise these in vitro matured eggs, he had to
‘capacitate’ the sperm. ‘Capacitation’ is a ﬁnal maturation process, which
the acquisition of fertilising competence. Failing to achieve this convincingly
at Johns Hopkins, he made a second transatlantic summer journey in 1966 to
visit Luther Talbot and his colleagues at Chapel Hill. Bob applied his usual
ingenuity to try a variety of ways to overcome the problem of sperm capacita-
tion, but no reliable evidence for success was forthcoming [59, 60]. Then in
1968 both struggles began to resolve.
Resolving the problem of sperm capacitation was the initial attraction to
Bob of Patrick Steptoe’s laparoscopic technique, Bob seeing it as a way of
recovering capacitated sperm from the oviduct . However, the actual
solution to this problem lay nearer home. Parkes had retired as Professor in
1967, to be replaced by Colin ‘Bunny’ Austin (1914–2004)  (Fig. 7). In the
early 1950s, Bunny, and independently M.C. Chang , had discovered the
requirement for sperm capacitation [63–64], and so Bunny set his graduate
student, Barry Bavister (1943–), to work to try and resolve how to reliably
capacitate hamster sperm in vitro. Bavister demonstrated a key role for pH in
a short paper published in 1969 that showed how higher rates of fertilisation
could be obtained by simply increasing the alkalinity of the medium . Bob
seized on this observation and co-opted Barry to his project of capacitating
human sperm. That proved to do the trick, leading to the 1969 paper .
The problem of the intermittent egg supply in the UK was also resolving.
Bob continued to rely on surgeons to provide him with ovarian biopsies
from which to mature eggs in vitro, indeed four are thanked in the 1969
of eggs to be fertilised, and although invited to be a co-author, declined for
reasons unknown. Also thanked are Norman Morris , Janet Bottomley
and Sanford Markham, and although it is not known whether they provided
any of the ovarian eggs for in vitro maturation described in the paper, Patrick
clearly did so , and at last provided for Bob a potentially more stable
The 1969 Nature paper describing IVF in humans  makes modest
claims, only two of 56 eggs reaching the two-pronuclear stage. But, like Bob’s
Figure 7. Bob with Bunny Austin, 1960s
(courtesy Ruth Edwards).
other papers, it is a model of clarity, describing well-controlled experiments,
cautiously interpreted. This paper convinced where previous claims [68–73]
had failed, precisely because the skilled hands and creative intellect that lay
behind it are so evident from its text. With its publication, announced to the
media on St Valentine’s Day , all hell was let loose.
THE BATTLES BEGIN
So 1969 seemed to Bob to be a good year. Not only did IVF succeed at long
last, and his partnership with Patrick seemed set to ﬂourish, but also so
impressed were the Ford Foundation with Bob’s work that they paid for him
to be awarded a Ford Foundation Readership (a half way step to a professor-
ship) in the University. Elated by his promotion and their achievement, Bob
and Patrick pressed on, the latter’s laparoscopic skills coming to the fore,
ﬁrst in 1970 with the collection of in vivo matured eggs from follicles after
mild hormonal stimulation , and then achieving regular fertilisation of
these eggs and their early development through cleavage to the blastocyst
stage  – my ﬁfth and sixth landmark papers. So well was the work going
that in February 1971 they conﬁdently applied to the UK Medical Research
Council for funding to bring Patrick to Cambridge from Oldham General
Hospital in Greater Manchester, where Patrick worked .
However, any illusions that Bob may have had that their achievements
would prove a turning point in his fortunes were soon shattered, and just 2
months later on April Fool’s Day 1971 the MRC decided to reject the grant
application . The practical consequences of this rejection were profound
– both psychologically and physically – not least that for the next 7 years, Bob
shuttled on the 12 hour round trip between Cambridge and Oldham, leaving
Ruth and his ﬁve daughters in Cambridge.
The professional attacks on Bob and his work took a number of forms
, and one must try to make a mental time trip back to the 1960s/70s
to understand their basis. Despite the nature of the political and religious
battles to come, his scientiﬁc and medical colleagues did not focus on the
special status of the human embryo as an ethical issue. However, ethical
issues were raised professionally, but took quite a different form. Thus, it
is difﬁcult now to comprehend the complete absence of infertility from
the consciousness of most gynaecologists in the UK at the time, to which
Patrick Steptoe was a remarkable exception . Indeed, Bob’s strong
commitment to treating infertility came to the fore only after he teamed up
with Patrick, his previous priority being the study and prevention of genetic
and chromosomal disorders. In the several reports from the Royal College
of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the MRC during the 1960s examin-
ing the areas of gynaecological ignorance that needed academic attention,
infertility simply did not feature . Overpopulation and family planning
were seen as dominant concerns and the infertile were ignored as at best a
tiny and irrelevant minority and at worst as a positive contribution to popula-
tion control. This was a values system that Bob simply could not accept,
and the many encouraging letters Bob was to receive from infertile couples
provided a major stimulus to his continued work later, despite so much
professional and press antagonism and so many set-backs. For his medico-
scientiﬁc colleagues, however, the fact that infertility was not seen as a clinical
issue, meant that any research designed to alleviate it was not viewed as
experimental treatment, but as using humans for experiments. Given the
sensitivity to Nazi ‘medical experiments’, and the public reaction and
disquiet surrounding the recent publication of ‘The Human Guinea-pig’ ,
this distinction was critical. The MRC, in rejecting the grant application, took
the position that what was being proposed was human experimentation, and
so were very cautious, emphasising risks rather than beneﬁts, of which they
saw few if any .
Bob and Patrick were also attacked for their willingness to talk with the
media. It is even more difﬁcult nowadays, when the public communication of
science is so embedded institutionally, to understand how damaging to them
this was. The massive press interest of the late 1960s was unabated in the
ensuing years, and so Bob was faced with a choice: either he could keep his
head down and allow press fantasies and speculations to go unanswered and
unchallenged, or he could engage, educate and debate. For Bob this was no
choice, regardless of the consequences for him professionally. His egalitarian
spirit demanded that he trust to common people’s common sense. His radical
political views demanded that he fought the corner of the infertile, the
underdog with no voice. The Yorkshireman in him relished engagement in
the debate and argument. In the seventh landmark paper selected, published
in Nature in 1971 with Dave Sharpe , he acknowledges the risk to his own
interests of so doing. Risky it clearly was, one of the scientiﬁc referees on
their MRC grant application starting his referee’s report declaring his strong
distaste for all the media exposure . Bob was a pioneer in the public
communication of science, and paid a heavy price for being so.
The Edwards and Sharpe paper  is a tour de force in its survey of the
scientiﬁc beneﬁts and risks of the science of IVF, in the legal and ethical
issues raised by IVF, and in the pros and cons of the various regulatory
responses to them. It sets out the issues succinctly and anticipates social
responses that were some 13–19 years into the future. In subsequent years,
Bob built on his strong commitment to social justice based on a social ethic,
as he engaged at every opportunity with ethicists, lawyers and theologians,
arguing, playing ‘devil’s advocate’ (literally, in the eyes of some), and engaging
in what we would now call practical ethics, as he hammered out his position
and felt able to fully justify his instincts intellectually.
But all this was to little avail. Indeed, Bob was continually frustrated at the
unwillingness of most of the establishment to engage seriously in ethical
debates in advance of the ﬁnal validation of IVF that was to come in 1978
with the birth of Louise Brown (Fig. 8), and my eighth and ﬁnal landmark
paper . Only then did most UK social hierarchies, such as the MRC, the
British Medical Association, the Royal Society and Government move gradu-
ally from their almost visceral reactions against IVF and its possibilities to
serious engagement with the issues . Then, to their credit, both the MRC
and the Thatcher Government of the time came on board, but it was not
until 1989, 24 years after Bob’s 1965 landmark paper in the Lancet, that the
UK Parliament ﬁnally gave its stamp of approval to his visionary work, and
then only after a ﬁerce battle lasting some 11 years . Eleven years since
the eighth and ﬁnal landmark paper was published announcing the birth of
Louise Brown. And of course, it has taken 45 years since that 1965 paper for
us to be celebrating the award of the Nobel Prize to this remarkable man.
Figure 8. Louise Brown holding the
1000th Bourn Hall baby, 1987 (courtesy
Bourn Hall Clinic).
The eight landmark papers I have selected (Table 1) present us with a
man of vision and foresight, imagination and intellectual rigour, and extra-
ordinary energy and drive: witness his prodigious output of papers between
1954–2008 . A man who could inspire colleagues to tread with him on
a difﬁcult scientiﬁc path besieged by public and professional animosity, of
whom two in particular, Patrick and Jean, we miss today (Fig. 9). And these
papers do not even begin to touch Bob’s other academic and personal quali-
ties, so evident in the way he has founded and generously nurtured journals
and international societies [84, 85], transforming the intellectual landscape
not just of gynaecology, but also of ethics and social anthropology. Truly the
‘father of Assisted Reproductive Technology’ in its widest interdisciplinary
sense: the only sense in which Bob knows it. For Bob, it is truly the Nobel
Prize for Physiology AND Medicine: there can be no OR about it.
I thank the Edwards family for their help in writing this account, for which
however I take full responsibility. I also thank Kay Elder and Sarah Franklin
for their unfailing wisdom and helpful advice. I thank Andrew Steptoe for
permission to reproduce Figure 1, Barbara Rankin for permission to repro-
duce Figure 2, Ruth Edwards for permission to reproduce Figures 3–7, and
Bourn Hall Clinic for permission to reproduce Figures 8 and 9. The research
underpinning this account was supported by a grant from The Wellcome
Trust , which otherwise had no involvement in the research or its
publication. This chapter is adapted from “Robert Edwards: the path to
IVF” by M.H. Johnson published in Reproductive BioMedicine Online (Elsevier)
at doi:10.1016/j.rbmo.2011.04.010 and is included in this volume with
Hall, 1981 (courtesy Bourn Hall Clinic).
1. Edwards, R.G., “Patrick Christopher Steptoe, C. B. E. 9 June 1913–22 March 1988,”
Biog Mems Fell R Soc, 1996. 42: p. 435–452.
2. Edwards, R.G. and P.C. Steptoe, “Preface,” In: Edwards, R.G., Purdy, J.M., Steptoe,
P.C. (eds). Implantation of the Human Embryo, 1985. Academic Press: London, UK,
3. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 25.
4. Massey, H. and N. Feather “James Chadwick. 20 October 1891 – 24 July 1974,” Biog
Mems Fell R Soc, 1976. 22: p. 10–70.
5. Ashwood-Smith, M.J., “Robert Edwards at 55,” Reprod BioMed Online, 2002. 4
(Suppl.1): p. 2–3.
6. Ingle, D.J., “Gregory Goodwin Pincus. April 9,1903–August 22,196,” Biog Mems Natl
7. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 43.
8. Slee, J., “RGE at 25 – personal reminiscences,” Reprod BioMed Online, 2002. 4
(Suppl.1): p. 1.
9. Oakley, C.L., “Francis William Rogers Brambell. 1901–1970,” Biog Mems Fell R Soc,
1973. 19: p. 129–171.
10. Parkes, A.S., “Francis Hugh Adam Marshall. 1878–1949,” Biog Mems Fell R Soc, 1950. 7:
11. Polge, C., “Sir Alan Sterling Parkes. 10 September 1900 – 17 July 1990,” Biog Mems Fell
12. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 7.
13. Robertson, A., “Conrad Hal Waddington. 8 November 1905 – 26 September 1975,”
14. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 18.
15. Milne, E.A., “Ralph Howard Fowler. 1889–1944,” Biog Mems Fell R Soc, 1945. 5:
2: p. 394–423.
17. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 20.
18. Edwards, R.G., “An astonishing journey into reproductive genetics since the 1950’s,”
Reprod Nutr Dev, 2005. 45: p. 299–306.
19. Watson, J.D. and F.H. Crick, “Genetical implications of the structure of deoxyri-
bonucleic acid,” Nature, 1953. 171: p. 964–967.
20. Watson, J.D. and F.H. Crick, “Molecular structure of nucleic acids: a structure for
deoxyribose nucleic acid,” Nature, 1953. 171: p. 737–738.
21. Franklin, R. and R. Gosling, “Molecular conﬁguration in sodium thymonucleate,”
22. Wilkins, M.H.F., A.R. Stokes and H.R. Wilson, “Molecular structure of deoxypentose
nucleic acids,” Nature, 1953.171: p. 738–740.
23. Gurdon, J.B., “Adult frogs derived from the nuclei of single somatic cells,” Dev Biol,
1962. 4: p. 256–273.
24. Gurdon, J.B., “The developmental capacity of nuclei taken from intestinal epithelium
cells of feeding tadpoles,” Development, 1962. 10: p. 622–640.
25. Gurdon, J.B., T.R. Elsdale and M. Fischberg, “Sexually mature individuals of Xenopus
26. Weinberg, A.M., 2001. “Messenger RNA: origins of a discovery,” Nature, 2001. 414:
27. Tjio, J.H. and A. Levan, “The chromosome number of man,” Hereditas, 1956. 42:
28. Ford, C.E. and J.L. Hamerton, “The chromosomes of man,” Nature, 1956. 178:
29. Denver Conference, “A proposed standard system of nomenclature of human mitotic
chromosomes,” Lancet, 1960. 275: p. 1063–1065.
30. Ford, C.E., P.E. Polani, J.H. Briggs and P.M. Bishop, “A presumptive human XXY/XX
mosaic,” Nature, 1959. 183: p. 1030–1032.
31. Ford, C.E., K.W. Jones, P.E. Polani, J.C. De Almeida and J.H. Briggs, “A sex-chromo-
some anomaly in a case of gonadal dysgenesis (Turner’s syndrome),” Lancet, 1959.
273: p. 711–713.
32. Lejeune, J., M. Gautier and R. Turpin, “Etude des chromosomes somatiques de neuf
enfants mongoliens,” Comptes Rendus Hebd Seances Acad Sci, 1959. 248: p. 1721–1722.
33. Fowler, R.E. and R.G. Edwards, “Induction of superovulation and pregnancy in
mature mice by gonadotrophins,” J Endocr, 1957. 15: p. 374–384.
ovulation, fertilization and the ﬁrst cleavage of eggs of adult mice treated with
gonadotrophins,” J Endocr, 1959. 18: p. 292–304.
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 23–4.
36. Horowitz, N.H., C.B. Metz, J. Piatigorsky, L. Piko, J.D. Spikes, and M. Ycas, “Albert
Tyler,” Science, 1969. 163: p. 424.
37. Reeve, S., “Nathaniel Mayer Victor Rothschild, G.B.E., G.M. Third Baron Rothschild.
31 October 1910 – 20 March 1990,” Biog Mems Fell R Soc, 1994. 39: p. 364–380.
38. Rothschild, “Did fertilization occur?’ Nature, 1969. 221: p. 981.
39. Edwards, R.G., B.D. Bavister and P.C. Steptoe, “Did fertilization occur?” Nature, 1969.
221: p. 981–982.
40. Mitchison, N.A., “Peter Brian Medawar. February 1915 – 2 October 1987,” Biog Mems
41. Rukavina, D., “The history of reproductive immunology: my personal view,” Am J
42. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 38.
43. Pincus, G. and E.V. Enzmann, “The comparative behavior of mammalian eggs in vivo
and in vitro i. the activation of ovarian eggs,” J Exp Med, 1935. 62: p. 665–675.
44. Pincus, G. and B. Saunders, “The comparative behavior of mammalian eggs in vivo
and in vitro. VI. The maturation of human ovarian ova,” Anat Record, 1939. 75: p.
46. Chang, M.C., “The maturation of rabbit oocytes in culture and their maturation,
activation, fertilization and subsequent development in the Fallopian tubes,” J Exp
Zool, 1955. 128: p. 379–405.
47. Askonas, B.A., “John Herbert Humphrey. 16 December 1915–25 December 1987,”
48. Edwards, R.G., “Meiosis in ovarian oocytes of adult mammals” Nature, 1962. 196:
49. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 48.
50. Cole, R.J., R.G. Edwards and J. Paul, “Cytodifferentiation in cell colonies and cell
strains derived from cleaving ova and blastocysts of the rabbit,” Exp Cell Res, 1965. 37:
51. Evans, M.J. and M.H. Kaufman, “Establishment in culture of pluripotential cells from
mouse embryos,” Nature, 1981. 292: p. 154–156.
52. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 51.
53. Edwards, R.G., “Maturation in vitro of mouse, sheep, cow, pig, rhesus monkey and
human ovarian oocytes,” Nature, 1965. 208: p. 349–351.
54. Edwards, R.G., “Maturation in vitro of human ovarian oocytes,” Lancet, 1965. 286:
55. Gardner, R.L. and R.G. Edwards, “Control of the sex ratio at full term in the rabbit by
transferring sexed blastocysts,” Nature, 1968. 218: p. 346–349.
56. Theodosiou, A.A. and M.H. Johnson, “The politics of human embryo research and
the motivation to achieve PGD,” Reprod BioMed Online, 2011. 22: p. 457–471.
57. Edwards, R.G., B.D. Bavister and P.C. Steptoe, “Early stages of fertilization in vitro of
human oocytes matured in vitro,” Nature, 1969. 221: p. 632–635.
58. Jones Jr., H.W., “From reproductive immunology to Louise Brown,” Reprod BioMed
59. Edwards, R.G., R.P. Donahue, T.A. Baramki and H.W. Jones Jr., “Preliminary attempts
to fertlilize human oocytes matured in vitro,” Am J Obstet Gynec, 1966: 96, p. 192–200.
60. Edwards, R.G., L. Talbert, D. Israelstam, H.N. Nino, and M.H. Johnson, “Diffusion
chamber for exposing spermatozoa to human uterine secretions,” Am J Obstet Gynec,
1968. 102: p. 388–396.
61. Edwards, R.G., interviewed in: To Mrs. Brown a daughter, 1980. Peter Williams TV: The
Studio, Boughton, Faversham, UK.
62. Anon, “Colin Austin,” Austral Acad Sci Newsletter, 2004. 60: p.
63. Chang, M.C., “Fertilizing capacity of spermatozoa deposited into the fallopian tubes,”
64. Austin, C.R., (1951) “Observations of the penetration of sperm into the mammalian
egg,” Austral J Sci Res Series B, 1951. 4: p. 581–596.
B.D., “Environmental factors important for in vitro fertilization in the hamster,”
Reproduction, 1969. 18: p. 544–545.
66. Edwards, R.G., and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 81–83.
67. “Morris, Prof. Norman Frederick,” In: Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2008: Oxford
University Press. http://www.ukwhoswho.com/view/article/oupww/whowaswho/
69. Shettles, L.B., “A morula stage of human ovum developed in vitro,” Fert Steril, 1955. 9:
70. Petrov, G.N., “[Fertilization and ﬁrst stages of cleavage of human egg in vitro],”
71. Yang, W.H., “[The nature of human follicular ova and fertilization in vitro],” J Jap
72. Petrucci, D., “Producing transplantable human tissue in the laboratory,” Discovery,
1961. 22: p. 278–283.
73. Hayashi, M., “Fertilization in vitro using human ova,” In: Proceedings of the 7th
International Congress Series No. 72: Amsterdam, Netherlands. pp. 505–510.
74. “New step towards test-tube babies,” Nature-Times News Service. The Times, 1969.
Friday, Feb 14: p. 1.
75. Steptoe, P.C. and R.G. Edwards, “Laparoscopic recovery of preovulatory human oo-
cytes after priming of ovaries with gonadotrophins,” Lancet, 1970. 295: p. 683–689.
76. Steptoe P.C., R.G. Edwards and J.M. Purdy, “Human blastocysts grown in culture,”
Nature, 1971. 229: p. 132–133.
77. Johnson, M.H., S.B. Franklin, M. Cottingham and N. Hopwood, “Why the Medical
Research Council refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe support for research
on human conception in 1971,” Hum Reprod, 2010. 25: p. 2157–2174.
78. Edwards, R.G. and P. Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough. 1980,
Hutchinson: London, UK. p. 11–15.
81. Edwards, R.G. and P.C. Steptoe, P.C., “Birth after the reimplantation of a human
embryo,” Lancet, 1978. 312, 366.
82. Johnson, M.H. and A.A. Theodosiou, “PGD and the making of the genetic embryo
as a political tool,” In: (Ed. S. McLean) Regulating PGD: A Comparative and Theoretical
Analysis, 2012. Routledge: London, UK. In the press.
83. Gardner, R.L. and M.H. Johnson, “Bob Edwards and the ﬁrst decade of Reproductive
BioMedicine Online,” In: (Eds. R.L. Gardner, M.H. Johnson) Tenth Anniversary
Issue 1 Bob Edwards and the ﬁrst decade of Reproductive BioMedicine Online, 2010. Elsevier:
Amsterdam, Netherlands. P. 1–24.
84. Cohen, J., “From Louise Brown to ESHRE and the journals,” Reprod BioMed Online,
2002. 4(Suppl.1): p. 8–10.
85. Bennett, F., “Birth of a journal: a personal memoire,” Reprod BioMed Online, 2010. 21:
Portrait photo of professor Edwards © Bourn Hall.