Science & Technology

Test-Tube Baby Pioneer Robert Edwards Dead at Age 87


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.