Professor Robert G. Edwards,
Ph.D., CBE, FRS, Nobel Laureate
The First Clinical Embryologist
27 September 1925 – 10 April 2013
The Journal of Clinical Embryology wishes to acknowledge and pay tribute to an extraordinary person and scientist who almost single handedly brought assisted reproduction into this world. Without his indefatigable efforts and persistence in the face of overwhelming resistance by religious groups, other scientists, as well as academic medicine, childless couples would still be faced with the burden of not being able to conceive a family of their own which has been the case for millennia.
Professor Edwards or “Bob”, as he many times insisted, had a charm about him shown not only for the highest dignitaries but for anyone who wished to speak to him at meetings throughout the world. Not many could utter the name Bob until they had met him in person and were immediately taken by the sheer force of his personality.
Even with people with whom he was not acquainted, there was little small talk during the conversation. There were always glimpses of the inquiring mind and the historical importance of finding the right questions. He did not shy away from letting you see into his own personal experience. It could be quit illuminating to hear him relate how, when he was in the British armed forces in India and relegated to a farming project, that he could at the same time confess that he was a total failure. You would think to yourself, how could that possibly be? He would also give you a glimmer into his beginning forays into academia after his war years. He did not simply knock on the doors of Cambridge University. In fact, his first thesis director told him he was not qualified to enter a diploma degree program and would only consider him if he took an upper level course in genetics and passed with high marks. With some trepidation Bob took on the challenge and following the completion of the course Professor Conrad Waddington took him on for his diploma work in Edinburgh, Scotland. Following the successful completion of his Diploma work and the blessing of Professor Waddington, he was accepted to do a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh in 1955 under the supervision of Alan Beatty. For this, Bob focused on early embryonic development and the possible effects of genetic and chromosomal abnormalities. These were especially productive years and set the stage for all his future work. Wherever he went from thereon he was acknowledged to be an outstanding researcher and a highly disciplined thinker.
Professor Edwards was a fierce but honorable competitor and did not take ‘NO’ as a satisfactory answer for not carrying out the research that he eventually chose to spend the rest of his life developing to help infertile couples. In fact, academic Obstetrics and Gynecology departments were vehemently opposed to his premise and later practice of In-Vitro Fertilization.
People have since asked why wasn’t IVF first practiced in the United States? There is an interesting story of a researcher at the NY Presbyterian Hospital that was ordered by the department chair to stop an in-vitro fertilization study in the middle of a clinical procedure. Of course, that did not sit well for the couple that was expecting the return of their embryos. That was the feeling toward the practice of IVF until Drs. Howard and Georgiana Jones began their practice in Norfolk Virginia in 1978. It seems as if no one had the foresight to support the work of Edwards and Dr. Patrick Steptoe except the patients who would benefit from this outlandish experimentation. Of course, once Louise Brown became the first baby born on July 25, 1978, every infertile couple said – why not us! The story from then on has become legendary and there is not a Department of ObGyn in the United States that doesn’t provide their patients with assisted reproduction treatment.
Of course, Professor Edwards was always ahead of his time in other areas of infertility practice and was first talking about cryopreservation of gametes and embryos as well as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) before he was successfully creating viable embryos. Likewise, the whole industry of stem cell production and regenerative medicine could point to him as the primary force behind the initiation of these promising clinical treatments. However, just as in the case of IVF, there is still no federal funding being sanctioned for this area of research and therefore only private funding can be used to support this dynamic, high potential clinical treatment research. Does it ring a bell?
Although many were asking if Bob would finally be presented with a Nobel Prize, even after winning so many other awards including the Lasker Award in 2001, the actual Nobel would not come until very late in his career (4 October 2010). It was the ultimate acknowledgement that he and his research and eventual clinical practice had indeed had a dramatic and positive impact on the medical treatment of infertility affecting millions around the world. Although the families he helped honor him with their precious children, we Clinical Embryologists can also feel vindicated and proud of the profession that we have chosen which was made possible by this extraordinary individual.
Our condolences go out to the family and close friends of Professor Edwards but we all celebrate the life that made such a difference in our world.
Editor, Journal of Clinical Embryology
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