Britain's 'father of IVF' wins the Nobel Prize

Maverick scientist is rewarded for his pioneering research into human fertility

A maverick British scientist, who became known as the "father of IVF" despite once being considered an outsider to the medical establishment, has won this year's Nobel prize in medicine.

Professor Robert Edwards, 85, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his pioneering work on the in vitro fertilisation of human eggs that led to the birth of the world's first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Professor Edwards, whose funding request for IVF research was turned down by the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the 1970s, is the sole recipient of this year's prize, which cannot be awarded posthumously. His co-worker, the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, died in 1988.

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden said that Professor Edwards' contributions represented a milestone in medicine. His work led to widely used IVF techniques which have allowed an estimated 4.5 million "test tube" babies to be born worldwide over the past 32 years.

Tributes to Professor Edwards flowed in yesterday from colleagues, scientific leaders, politicians and the research council that once denied him funding – a private donation in the end allowed him to continue the work that led to the world's first successful IVF pregnancy.

"The MRC is delighted by the award which recognises Professor Edwards' dedication to ensuring his early research translated into clinical practice," said Declan Mulkeen, director of research at the research council.

"The MRC didn't fund Edwards' work in the 1970s for a range of reasons, including safety and ethical reservations present at the time. In the 1970s, infertility research was given a lower prominence in research funding priorities and in clinical practice," Dr Mulkeen said.

Professor Edwards, a blunt-speaking Mancunian, started studying IVF using the egg cells of rabbits. He achieved his first successful fertilisation of human eggs in a test tube in 1969 and had the insight to realise that human fertilised eggs would not develop beyond the first cell division unless he allowed them to mature within the ovaries before removal.

The Nobel committee said that he clarified how human eggs mature, how different hormones regulate the maturation process and at which point the eggs are most susceptible to being fertilised by sperm. With Dr Steptoe, he also found ways of obtaining eggs from patients in a safe way, using the then relatively controversial technique of laparoscopy.

Professor Edwards, who is in frail health, said in 2008 that he still remembers when he created the first human blastocyst – an early embryo consisting of a microscopic ball of cells. "I'll never forget that day I looked down the microscope and saw something funny in the cultures... and what I saw was a human blastocyst gazing up at me. I thought: 'We've done it'," he said.

Louise Brown was born in a hospital in Oldham, and Steptoe and Edwards went on to create the first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall in Cambridge in the teeth of fierce opposition from religious authorities and scientific colleagues, who believed they had not carried out the necessary safety work on primates.

Ms Brown said yesterday it was "fantastic news" that Professor Edwards had won. "We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family," she said.

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said yesterday: "The work of Professor Edwards exemplifies the ethos of the Royal Society... applying visionary, extraordinary research to change the lives of people all over the world."

David Willetts, the Science Minister, said that Professor Edwards' achievements in IVF research brought hope and happiness to millions of families, while Sir Ian Wilmut, a pioneer of cloning, said the technology had provided the opportunity to study and understand early human development.

His career

1925 Born in Manchester Robert Edwards completed compulsory military service before studying biology at the University of Wales in Bangor and at Edinburgh University where he was given a PhD in 1955 for his thesis on embryonic development of mice.

1958 Becomes staff scientist at the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research, where he begins work on the study of the human fertilisation process.

1963 Moves to Cambridge University where much of the pioneering work that leads to his Nobel prize is carried out. Later sets up the world's first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall, which he founded with colleague Patrick Steptoe.

1978 Louise Brown, the world's first IVF baby, is born on 25 July following research carried out by Steptoe and Edwards.

2010 Wins the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor