For the first time ever, the Nobel Prize committee has awarded one of its coveted medals — and $1-million-plus in prize money — to a scientist who worked in the area of reproduction.
The British biologist Robert G. Edwards won the Nobel Prize in "physiology or medicine" today for pioneering in vitro fertilization with a colleague, Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist and medical researcher who died in 1988. The pair's efforts led to the birth of the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978.
Since then, four million babies have been born with the assistance of IVF, in which sperm and egg are united outside the mother's body and then transferred to the womb.
The Nobel Committee waited more than 30 years to make the award. Edwards, who spent most of his career at Cambridge University, is 85 years old and "not in a position to understand the honor he has received today,” a colleague, Dr. Michael Macnamee, was quoted as saying in a New York Times article by Nicholas Wade.
Edwards and Steptoe unlocked many of the secrets of the human reproductive system on their way to success with IVF. They tried 40 embryo transfers before they achieved a pregnancy, which turned out to be ectopic. The second try led to the birth of a daughter to Leslie and Gilbert Brown of Oldham, in Greater Manchester, England.
Like virtually all medical visionaries, Edwards and Steptoe were subjected to vitriolic attacks. The British medical establishment withheld all manner of support from them, even after Louise Brown's birth.
But the joy of millions of families all over the world who were able to hold their own babies as a result of IVF technology eventually quelled the critics.
Louise Brown, herself the mother of a three-year-old boy, said of the award today: "It's fantastic news; me and Mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves. We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family at this time."