Tue, Jun 11, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Plaque fails to honor nurse who had major role in IVF

‘EQUAL CONTRIBUTOR’:Nurse Jean Purdy was the first person to witness the cell division of the embryo that would become Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby

The Guardian

The name of a female nurse and embryologist who played a crucial role in developing the world’s first test-tube baby was excluded from a plaque honoring the pioneers of in vitro fertilization (IVF), despite objections from her colleagues, newly released letters revealed.

Jean Purdy was one of three scientists whose groundbreaking work led to the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978.

Yet her central role was largely forgotten in the rush to praise her colleagues, Robert Edwards and surgeon Patrick Steptoe.

The letters show that Purdy’s name was left off a plaque honoring her two colleagues, despite protests from Edwards.

Letters revealed in Edwards’ archive show that he wrote to Oldham Area Health Authority in 1980 asking if it would be possible to have plaques at the hospitals involved “to do justice to the participants involved,” and he proposed including Purdy’s name.

In a reply from an administrator, he was told that the authorized wording would read: “Human in vitro fertilisation followed by the world’s first successful pregnancy, was performed in this hospital by Mr Patrick Steptoe, Dr Robert Edwards and their supporting staff in November 1977.”

“I hope you will find it sufficiently acceptable to enable us at least to put up something to commemorate your work, even if this does not describe it as fully or as clearly as you would wish,” administrator David Killion wrote.

Edwards protested in a letter of 1981, writing: “I feel strongly about the inclusion of the names of the people who helped with the conception of Louise Brown. I feel this especially about Jean Purdy, who traveled to Oldham with me for 10 years, and contributed as much as I did to the project. Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.”

However, the plaque at Kershaw’s Cottage hospital near Oldham, England, was put up without Purdy’s name on it.

The letters have been released from Edwards’ private papers, which are held at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre and have been opened to the public following work to catalogue the collection funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Madelin Evans, an archivist, said the letters do not reveal an “explicit reason” why Purdy’s name was omitted, but that “it probably had quite a bit to do with the fact she was a nurse, an embryologist and a woman, I suppose.”

Purdy, who died from cancer in 1985 aged 39, was described by Edwards as “crucial” to their IVF work and was the first person to witness the successful cell division of the embryo that would become Louise Brown.

Having initially joined the team as a lab technician, Purdy became so indispensable that work stopped for several months when she had to care for her ailing mother.

Edwards was awarded a Nobel prize in 2010 for the development of IVF and was knighted in 2011.

Neither award can be made posthumously, so acknowledgment came too late for Purdy and Steptoe, who died in 1988, but the discovery was a team effort.

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