IVF Pioneer Wins Nobel Prize In Medicine

Thirty-two years after the first "Test Tube Baby" was born, the doctor who pioneered the procedure that created her has been recognized with a Nobel Prize.

One of the two men who pioneered a procedure that once seemed like science fiction has won this years Nobel Prize In Medicine:

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded this year to Robert G. Edwards, an English biologist who, with a physician colleague, Patrick Steptoe, developed the in vitro fertilization procedure for treating human infertility.

Since the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978, some four million babies worldwide have been conceived by mixing eggs and sperm outside the body and returning the embryo to the womb to resume development. The procedure overcomes many previously untreatable causes of infertility.

Dr. Edwards, a physiologist who spent much of his career at Cambridge University in England, spent more than 20 years solving a series of problems in getting eggs and sperm to mature and successfully unite outside the body. His colleague, Dr. Steptoe, was a gynecologist and pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, the method used to extract eggs from the prospective mother.

Dr. Steptoe, who presumably would otherwise have shared the prize, died in 1988. Dr. Edwards, who born in 1925, has now retired as head of research from the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, which he and Dr. Steptoe founded as the world’s first center for in vitro fertilization.

Though in vitro fertilization is now widely accepted, the birth of the first test tube baby was greeted with intense concern that the moral order was subverted by unnatural intervention in the mysterious process of creating a human being. Dr. Edwards was well aware of the ethical issues raised by his research and took the lead in addressing them.

The objections gradually died away, except on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, as it became clear that the babies born by in vitro fertilization were healthy and that their parents were overjoyed to be able to start a family. Long-term follow-ups have confirmed the essential safety of the technique.

It’s been thirty-two years since Louise Brown, the world’s first human conceived outside the womb, was born and it’s unclear why the Nobel Committee waited this long to award Edwards — and Steptoe — for what was clearly a ground-breaking and, for many people, life-changing procedure.

Those of you who were around in 1978 when Brown was born will remember the breathless ethical debates that the story generated in the media — debates that probably would’ve been even more heated if cable news and the internet had existed back then — but, in the end, IVF has become rather commonplace, even among Catholics who continue to be instructed by their Church that the procedure is improper.

FILED UNDER: Health, Science & Technology
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.


  1. tps says:

    The non-peace prize Nobel awards can be quite odd in how they award things. Einstein won the physics prize not for his theory of relativity but for an earlier paper that was more minor compared with his other works. Charles Kao, the grandfather of fiber optics, did his work back in the 60’s and didn’t get his Nobel until 2009.

  2. sam says:

    “Einstein won the physics prize not for his theory of relativity but for an earlier paper that was more minor compared with his other works. ”

    Yeah, he won for his explanation of the photo-electric effect. That has always struck me as odd. Can’t the Nobel in Physics be given twice?

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    I thought you were going to pour some gas on the fire Doug by pointing out that gazillions of eggs are dumped by IV clinics but apparently using such eggs for stem cell research is beyond the pale. I well remember the first baby in 1978 because I was working in England at the time. I don’t remember much controversy in Britain about about religious or ethical issues but then the Brits lost interest in religion a long time ago.

  4. tps says:

    “Yeah, he won for his explanation of the photo-electric effect. That has always struck me as odd. Can’t the Nobel in Physics be given twice?”

    There’s no limits to the number of times you can win a Nobel that I’ve heard of. The only explanation in Eistein’s case that I can think was that his Relativity Theory didn’t have ‘proof’ behind it yet. They knew it was right and that he was a genius but they didn’t want to stick their collective necks out too far. The photo-electric paper was well documented so they could give him the prize for that.

    Why they didn’t give him another one is the mystery.

  5. sam says:

    Well, he got the prize in 1921, but Eddington got the empirical verification for general relativity in 1919 (or at least it’s one of it’s core assertions). But as you say, a mystery why he didn’t get another Nobel, if only years after the first.

  6. george says:

    As others have pointed out, a long time lag is also pretty normal for Nobel Prizes.

    BTW, Einstein got his for work he did in 1905 which if not as revolutionary as his theories of relativity, were still very major papers. The photo-electric effect was one of the cornerstones of quantum mechanics, and would be the crowning achievement in all but a small handful of physicist’s careers (and we’re talking about the Newton, Bohr, Heisenberg level guys here). Even his explanation of Brownian motion, which finally convinced many skeptical physicists that atoms existed, would have been worthy of a Nobel Prize in itself.

  7. sam says:

    “The photo-electric effect was one of the cornerstones of quantum mechanics”

    And I’ve always appreciated the irony of that.

  8. Method is only helpful when done in good purpose