LONDON – Robert Edwards, a Nobel prizewinner from Britain whose pioneering in vitro fertilization research led to the first test tube baby and has since brought millions of people into the world, died Wednesday at age 87.
The University of Cambridge, where he was a professor, said Edwards passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home just outside Cambridge.
Together with Dr. Patrick Steptoe, Edwards developed in vitro fertilization, or IVF, which resulted in the birth in 1978 of the world’s first test tube baby, Louise Brown. At the time, the two were accused of playing God and interfering with nature.
Since then, the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology estimates that about 5 million babies have been born using the technique, which creates embryos in the laboratory before transferring them into a woman. Experts say about 350,000 babies are born by IVF every year, mostly to people with infertility problems, single people and gay and lesbian couples.
“(Edwards) was an extraordinary scientist,” said Dr. Peter Braude, emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Kings College London, who was at Cambridge when Edwards and Steptoe were developing IVF.
“There was such hysteria around the kind of work he was doing,” Braude said, noting that Edwards stopped his research for two years after he published details on how he had created embryos in the laboratory. “He wanted to work out what the right thing to do was, whether he should continue or whether he was out on a limb,” Braude said.
Braude said that Edwards collected donor eggs from women in Oldham, where Steptoe worked. Edwards then put the eggs into test tubes which he strapped to his legs to keep them warm before catching the train to Cambridge, where he would attempt to fertilize them in the laboratory.
After Brown was born, Braude recalled a celebration at Cambridge, where scientists toasted Edwards and Steptoe’s achievement by drinking champagne out of plastic cups.
Braude said public opinion has evolved considerably since then.
“I think people now understand that (Edwards) only had the best motivation,” he said. “There are few biologists that have done something so practical and made a huge difference for the entire world.”
In 2010, Edwards was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine or physiology for the development of IVF. Steptoe had already passed away; the Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously. The Roman Catholic Church denounced the award, arguing that human life should only begin through intercourse and not artificially. The Vatican said Edwards “bore a moral responsibility for all subsequent developments in assisted reproduction technology and for all abuses made possible by IVF.”
In 2011, Edwards was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II “for services to human reproductive biology.”
Other scientists called Edwards a visionary who forever changed the lives of people helped by IVF and the medical community.
“(Edwards’) inspirational work in the early 60s led to a breakthrough that has enhanced the lives of millions of people worldwide,” said Mike Macnamee, chief executive of the IVF clinic that Edwards and Steptoe co-founded, in a statement. “It was a privilege to work with him and his passing is a great loss to us all.”