British scientist Robert Edwards, who was awarded a Nobel prize for his pioneering work in developing in vitro fertilization (IVF), died on Wednesday aged 87, his university announced.
Edwards spent his career making the dream of having a baby come true for millions of people worldwide, running into conflict with the Catholic Church and fellow scientists on his way.
He was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 2010, three decades after the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978, and five decades after he first began experimenting.
Edwards was too frail to pick up his Nobel prize in Stockholm in 2010, leaving that to his wife Ruth, with whom he had five daughters. However, he remained a fellow of Churchill College at Cambridge until his death.
His work was motivated by his belief, as he once described it, that “the most important thing in life is having a child. Nothing is more special than a child.”
Born in Yorkshire, England, on Sept. 27, 1925, into a working-class family, Edwards served in the British army during World War II before returning home to study first agricultural sciences and then animal genetics.
Building on earlier research which showed that egg cells from rabbits could be fertilized in test tubes when sperm was added, Edwards developed the same technique for humans.
In a laboratory in Cambridge, England, in 1968, he first saw life created outside the womb in the form of a human blastocyst, an embryo that has developed for five to six days after fertilization.
“I’ll never forget the day I looked down the microscope and saw something funny in the cultures,” Edwards once recalled. “I looked down the microscope and what I saw was a human blastocyst gazing up at me. I thought: ‘We’ve done it.’”
However, Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, a surgeon, who died in 1988, were forced to defend their work in the face of severe opposition, from the media, the Catholic Church — and fellow scientists.
At a conference on biomedical ethics in Washington in 1971, the Nobel laureate James Watso, said IVF research would necessitate infanticide.
Addressing the conference, Edwards defended his work with the passion and energy that characterized all his work, and received a standing ovation.
“Few biologists have so positively and practically impacted on humankind,” said Peter Braude, emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Kings College London.