Test-Tube Baby Pioneer Robert Edwards Dead at Age 87


Robert Edwards

British researcher Robert Edwards and his collaborator Patrick Steptoe developed in vitro fertilization which brought the first "test-tube baby," Louise Joy Brown, into the world back in 1978. Since then some 5 milion babies have been born by means of the IVF techniques he pioneered. As I explained in my column, "From Yuck to Yippee" on the occasion of Edwards being finally awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010:

The public (and makers of public policy) initially reacted to Edwards' research with moral horror. However, once he and Steptoe had succeeded in producing a healthy baby girl, revulsion swiftly turned into wide approval and ethical acceptance.

In 2001, when Roberts was given the prestigious Lasker Award for medical research, biochemist Joseph Goldstein quipped, "We know that IVF was a great leap because Edwards and Steptoe were immediately attacked by an unlikely trinity—the press, the pope, and prominent Nobel laureates." Edwards' scientific career traces out the ethical arc that characterizes reaction to much technological progress during the last century—initial fear and loathing followed by a warm embrace. Yuck followed quickly by yippee.

Edwards was a warm, wonderful and witty man. I had the privilege of spending time with him at a conference put on by one America's leading IVF clinics, Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax, Va. When I introduced Edwards to my wife, she quipped, "I hear that you're the wizard." Edwards charmed back, "Well, I hope that I am a good wizard." As indeed he was.

Ms. Brown, the first beneficiary of Edwards' research, generously observed to the BBC:

"His work, along with Patrick Steptoe, has brought happiness and joy to millions of people all over the world by enabling them to have children.

"I am glad that he lived long enough to be recognised with a Nobel prize for his work, and his legacy will live on with all the IVF work being carried out throughout the world."

Let us mourn the death of a great and compassionate man.

NEXT: Louvre Staff Walkout Protesting Agressive Pickpockets

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

    1. Fantastic.

      Why is genetic modification largely considered a moral imperative to improve the human race but GMO=GTFO?

      1. Why is genetic modification largely considered a moral imperative to improve the human race

        It is?

        1. It isn’t?

          Stem cells, gene therapy, isolation, modification…

          wasn’t the mapping of the human genone considered to be important because we could isolate and ‘turn off’ undesirable genes?

          1. wasn’t the mapping of the human genone considered to be important because we could isolate and ‘turn off’ undesirable genes?

            I thought it was so we could finally achieve the ends desired by those who promoted phrenology in the last century.

            /sarc (maybe)

      2. I hear an awful lot more people fretting about the dangers and unfairness (because rich people will be able to do it first) of genetic modification than I do people who see it as a moral imperative. At least not beyond curing disease.

        It’s a lot like performance enhancing drugs. They’re OK if they treat some disease, but if it makes an already healthy person better, stronger or smarter then it’s cheating or unfair or something.

    2. But Pro lib we offered the world order.

      1. I know, but it’s all gone to hell since that business with Ceti Alpha V.

  1. If your gametes won’t mix naturally, isn’t that a sign that you shouldn’t be mixing those genetics?

    Artificial fertilization shouldn’t be desirable WITHOUT genetic modification, to ensure that the resulting offspring aren’t condition-ridden wastes of space who will end up artificially breeding even less vigorous spawn.

    I’m not endorsing coerced eugenics, but is it too much to ask that people take some personal responsibility for the future of our species?

    1. Which does the future need more of: The children of people who are resourceful enough to overcome a quirk of genetics/physiology or the children of people too stupid to correctly use contraception?

      1. The future will take what it gets.

        1. Which is debt and people who use lighter fluid to start a propane grill.

    2. Unless, as in our case, your wife sustained a childhood injury which left her fallopian tubes too damaged to conceive. IVF made the birth of our children possible, albeit not without new challenges.

      Implanting 2 embryos, which roughly 90% of the time results in one live birth, actually resulted in both embryos surviving and one splitting. My wife gave birth to triplets, one with considerable central defects in her heart and esophagus, which eventually took her life 2 years and 23 surgeries later.

      Our other 2 are perfectly healthy and infuriating, just as 3 year olds are supposed to be.

  2. Rest in peace.

    But speaking no ill of the dead isn’t the same as criticizing the logic of Joseph Goldstein’s words of praise, which I make bold to do:

    “We know that IVF was a great leap because Edwards and Steptoe were immediately attacked by an unlikely trinity?the press, the pope, and prominent Nobel laureates.”

    The implication is that if he *hadn’d* been criticized by the press, the Pope, and prominent Nobel laureates, he wouldn’t have been as deserving of the Nobel Prize.

    Well, first off, there are plenty of Nobel laureates, at least in science, who *weren’t* criticized by fellow laureates. Are their prizes somehow of less value?

    And second off, he shares the Nobel with Yasir Arafat and Barack Obama.

  3. EvH: Arafat and Obama got Nobels in Medicine or Physiology?

  4. Sounds like a solid deal to me dude.


  5. Thank you, Dr. Edwards, for all your good work.

    (Wife is currently 9 weeks with an IVF baby. We got our first daughter for free, but had to pay through the nose for the second!)

  6. His invention generates a new optimism among couples who are unable to become parent. Today approximately more than 1 percentage of children is born by the help of this technique. Since the success rate of IVF is increasing day by day due to the new innovated medical device like embryosope which make this process lot easier than before. A man’s sperm and the woman’s egg are fertilized under the laboratory environment which result embryo or embryos. The embryos are then moved to the woman’s womb for further implantation to develop naturally.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.