By: 12 June 2019
The archive of Professor Sir Robert Edwards, IVF pioneer, reveals his struggle for recognition of an unsung female colleague and fair access to treatment for all

The private papers of IVF pioneer, Professor Sir Robert Edwards, has opened to the public at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre, from Monday 10 June, 2019.

Robert Edwards worked for over a decade on the research that led to the success of in vitro fertilisation to treat infertility. The big breakthrough came with the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown in 1978. Thereafter he established the world’s first IVF clinic, Bourn Hall in Cambridgeshire, in 1980. Throughout he worked alongside medical doctor, Patrick Steptoe, and clinical embryologist Jean Purdy. Since then it has been estimated that 6 million babies have been born through IVF all over the world.

Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010 for the development of in vitro fertilisation, and was knighted in 2011. Neither award can be made posthumously, so acknowledgment came too late for Purdy and Steptoe who died in 1985 and 1988 respectively – but the discovery was a team effort.

Newly released letters from Edwards’ archive show his personal battle as he repeatedly fought for official recognition of Jean Purdy’s equal contribution towards the discovery of IVF. Her work as a woman in science has gone largely unrecognised when compared to Edwards and Steptoe.

In correspondence released between Edwards and Oldham Health Authority in the lead up to the unveiling of an official plaque to mark the birth of Louise Brown, Edwards argues numerous times for the inclusion of Jean Purdy’s name to sit alongside his own and that of Patrick Steptoe.

He writes arguing for fair recognition and states that Jean Purdy ‘travelled to Oldham with me for 10 years and contributed as much as I did to the project. Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.’ Unfortunately his repeated appeals fell on deaf ears and Oldham Health Authority did not take on board his request and her name went unrecognised on the official plaque.

Purdy joined Edwards in 1968 and worked closely with him, travelling to California in 1969 to undertake key research on follicular fluid. She continued to be instrumental in enabling the continued trials of IVF and in locating and organizing the adaptation of Bourn Hall as the world’s first IVF clinic. Meanwhile, as letters reveal, the National Health Service repeatedly declined to support IVF work, despite the numerous ways Edwards presented the case.

In a letter dated November 1974, Edwards writes to the Department of Health pointing out, ‘Our major concern is to help the many patients who could benefit by the rapid development of this method, for it could avoid many operations now carried out, which could become unnecessary.’

Again in Oct 1981 he writes to the Local Health Authority questioning the ethics and legality of withholding treatment because of lack of financial support: ‘…these patients have paid their contribution to the NHS and, now they want treatment, they are not being allowed to receive it. I cannot allow this situation to rest as it is, especially since, at long last you have been advised that it is professionally accepted that our approach offers the only hope of conception for some women… I cannot see any excuse for excluding one group of patients from the correct form of treatment.’

Cambridgeshire Health Authority replied to Edwards’ appeals for support, ‘Our current allocation is insufficient to maintain the service that we already provide. There is, therefore, no way in which the Health Authority can meet the expense of NHS patients attending your clinic.’

With the ethics and funding of IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies still open for discussion today – such as the cut in NHS funding for IVF treatment- the Edwards archive could add valuable context to the debate.

The papers will be invaluable for researchers in the history of science, but also in the history of ethics, social implications of medical developments, and political and media history. Edwards engaged with the ethics of IVF and there is a wealth of information in the archive on these matters.

The cataloguing of the Edwards papers has been generously funded by the Wellcome Trust

Sir Robert Edwards archive catalogue is available online

Researchers can book an appointment at Churchill Archives Centre to view the papers.
Email for more information.

Source: University of Cambridge

Image caption: IVF trio with Louise Brown and her mother at 1st Birthday. Credit: Robert Edwards Archive