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Sir Robert G Edwards (1925 – 2013)

By David H. Barlow


With the announcement of the death of Bob Edwards at the age of 87, on 10 April 2013, a field of medicine and science has lost its grandfather. What is more, for more than five million children worldwide the man whose life’s work made their conception possible is no more. In every generation there are scientists whose discoveries and innovations make a difference but only a small number become household names. As one half of ‘Steptoe and Edwards’ Bob Edwards achieved that elevation in the popular imagination. As a result large numbers of people know his name and that he was one of the team who made IVF possible, but it is likely that few have any idea of the scale of his contribution. His whole postgraduate career, from the early 1950s, was spent in the progressive study of the biology of fertilization leading step by step to the in vitro fertilization of a human egg in 1968 and to the possibility that human pregnancy might eventually be achievable. Although through the 1970s Patrick Steptoe’s skill in laparoscopy provided the vital practical contribution that made the eventual establishment of the first IVF pregnancy possible, it was Bob Edwards’ long-term vision that had been the driving force.

The scale of opposition to their work is difficult now to imagine. In the years leading up to the landmark event in 1978 both the Vatican and many opinion leaders raised huge concerns. Even the Medical Research Council failed to provide support. In the years after 1978 the diverse opposition continued and ultimately in the UK the sensitivity perceived to surround human in vitro fertilization lead to the Warnock Commission, then the Human Fertilization and Embryology Act 1990. With the establishment of the HFEA in 1991 this area of medical practice has been regulated more heavily than any other. The scale of the opposition over decades would have crushed lesser men and their work.

Having demonstrated that human IVF could indeed lead to the birth of healthy babies might have been sufficient for some, but Steptoe and Edwards together took clinical IVF forward by establishing the first ever IVF clinic at Bourne Hall. Through the 1980s this and a growing number of IVF clinics around the world developed the processes involved so that by the end of that decade IVF had become an effective infertility treatment option. It is important that Bob Edward’s role in the progression of IVF through the 1980s and 90s is recognized. His status as the father of IVF was unquestioned and this gave him access as a significant presence at all the major international scientific conferences on human reproduction. In this role he was continually challenging the growing clinical and scientific community to address fundamental questions of reproduction as well seeking to improve clinical progress in clinical IVF. His presence at scientific meetings was often inspirational for the following generation of IVF scientists.

An important contribution was his leading role in founding ESHRE, the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in 1984. Two years later he founded the scientific journal Human Reproduction, becoming its first Editor-in-Chief and serving from 1986 up to 2000. ESHRE has become one of the world’s most influential bodies in the development of all aspects of the field and Human Reproduction and its sister journals, again created by Bob (Human Reproduction Update and Molecular Human Reproduction), became world leaders. In 2000 although now in his mid-seventies Bob Edwards founded the online scientific journal Biomedicine Online, which also carries forward his vision. Both ESHRE and the journals he created continue to carry forward his vision.

I succeeded Bob as Editor-in-Chief of Human Reproduction in 2000 and my own strongest memories of him are of conversations about how journals might meet the challenges of encouraging young scientists and of advancing knowledge in the field. Well into retirement he always demonstrated an acute grasp of key unanswered questions and communicated his deep fascination with how reproduction works.

Bob Edwards received awards from bodies around the world and this high esteem was well deserved. He received the ultimate recognition as a British scientist in being elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1984 but it is bitter-sweet that the world’s most prestigious award, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, which many of us felt was long-overdue, came late in his life in 2010 when his health was poor. In the circumstances his Nobel Prize was received by his wife, Ruth, and his Nobel Symposium lecture was given by his eminent student, Professor Martin Johnson, and this provides a superbly detailed and affectionate portrait of a great scientist.  This and Bob’s own memoir in Nature Medicine serve as excellent guides to the long and successful path to his landmark achievements. 

He was awarded a knighthood in 2011.

David H Barlow is Emeritus Professor, previously Executive Dean of Medicine at the University of Glasgow.  He was 20 years at the University of Oxford where he was Nuffield Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and a Fellow of Oriel College.  He has contributed, through various national roles, to the strategic development of IVF in the UK and is Emeritus Editor-in-Chief of Human Reproduction having succeeded Bob Edwards in 2000. He is currently Director of Women’s Health Services at the Hamad Medical Corporation, Qatar.

Human Reproduction features full-length, peer-reviewed papers reporting original research, clinical case histories, as well as opinions and debates on topical issues. Papers published cover the clinical science and medical aspects of reproductive physiology and pathology, endocrinology, andrology, gonad function, gametogenesis, fertilization, embryo development, implantation, pregnancy, genetics, genetic diagnosis, oncology, infectious disease, surgery, contraception, infertility treatment, psychology, ethics and social issues.

Image credit: Artificial insemination. Image by alex-mit, iStcokphoto.

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