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Professor Edwards - Nobel Laureate

ACA's Scientific Director Dr Steven Fleming presented a tribute to Professor Edwards at the 2010 Scientists in Reproductive Technology (SIRT) meeting in Adelaide. Professor Edwards was recently awarded a Nobel prize for his pioneering work in human IVF and embryology. A summary of his achievements is presented below. 

Professor Robert Geoffrey Edwards – Nobel Laureate

On October 4th 2010, Bob Edwards was finally awarded the Nobel prize (in Physiology or Medicine) for his pioneering work in human in vitro fertilisation and embryology, 32 years after achieving the world’s first successful IVF birth. In many ways though, this is a bitter-sweet award as it arrives at a time when Bob is now 85 and too infirm to fully appreciate the enormity of this recognition, let alone benefit from the award – one can only wonder at what further accomplishments he might have achieved had the award come earlier. Professor Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988, would surely have also shared the Nobel prize due to his pioneering work in laparoscopic technique that enabled them to successfully retrieve human oocytes. Ten years ago, at a meeting in Venice to celebrate Bob’s 75th birthday (shown in the photo below), Professor Simon Fishel concluded his speech honouring Bob’s achievements by making the plea “Stockholm, I hope you’re listening” and one year later, in 2001, Bob was given the Lasker Medical Research Award, often viewed as a sign that a Nobel prize is imminent. Only the Nobel Committee will know why they waited until 2010, after an estimated 4 million IVF births, to reach their decision.

Nowadays, it is impossible to comprehend fully the immense dedication, determination and self-belief that was required by Bob to accomplish that first IVF birth. Simon Fishel aptly described Bob as “a true pioneer of the spirit and a solitary voice in the early days of IVF.” Bob Edwards and Patrick Steptoe were absolutely pilloried and vilified by the establishment for what was believed ill-considered and unethical research upon vulnerable couples desperate to have a baby, and it is believed they were confronted with up to nine writs served against them. Despite publishing a string of articles on human oocyte maturation, fertilisation and embryogenesis in the 1960s and 1970s in top ranking journals such as ‘Nature’, which these days would all but guarantee research support, the Medical Research Council rejected their application for a research grant. Undaunted by such major obstacles, Bob singularly took the argument forward to those involved in the medical science, morals, ethics and laws concerning IVF and, in so doing, almost single-handedly moved the field of assisted reproduction into the wider domain. Fortunately, Bob Edwards and Patrick Steptoe were able to attract private funds to enable them to pursue their research and reach their goal.

To simply list the achievements and awards that have been bestowed upon Bob Edwards would fill several pages. His major achievements include the world’s first IVF pregnancy in 1975, the world’s first IVF birth in 1978, the world’s second IVF birth in 1979, establishment of the world’s first IVF centre (established with Patrick Steptoe at Bourne Hall near Cambridge) in 1980, the initiation of ESHRE and its journal, ‘Human Reproduction’ in 1986. His major awards include election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984, being made a Commander of the British Empire at Buckingham Palace in 1988 (perhaps he should have been knighted), being made a Pioneer of the Nation in 2003, and receiving the Pride of Britain award in 2008. Professor Simon Fishel described Bob as “the most celebrated reproductive biologist who has ever lived” and Professor Martin Johnson made the comment, “no other scientist could have transformed so many aspects of our society”.

The legacy of Professor Bob Edwards will prove far-reaching and long-lasting. His breakthrough led to the development of ICSI, PGD, cloning, stem cells, transplant and cancer therapies. His students and research associates have become leaders in the field of human reproductive biology and include such luminaries as Jacques Cohen, Simon Fishel, Alan Handyside and Martin Johnson. By association we, as scientists in reproductive technology, all benefit from what Bob has achieved and the award of the Nobel prize raises our profile and increases the respect of the community for our profession. As stated by the Nobel Committee, IVF is now accepted as a safe and effective procedure that 10% of couples benefit from, resulting in 2% of births worldwide – this is undoubtedly Bob’s greatest legacy of all and the one that has always brought the biggest smile to his face. Thanks Bob, from all of us…

Professor Edwards

Professor Edwards - Nobel Laureate

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