Professor Sir Robert Edwards - Nobel Laureate (1925-2013)
Professor Sir Richard Gardner, FRS, one of Professor Sir Robert Edwards' first research students.30 June 2013
Robert Geoffrey Edwards, “Bob” to his colleagues and friends, was one of the truly giant figures of the 20th Century. As a scientist, his farsightedness, energy and rigour in the field of human reproduction brought about the most significant advance in the history of treatment of infertility and made him a Nobel Laureate. As a campaigner, Bob’s compassion, humour and strongly held principles led him tirelessly to promote public awareness of this common source of human misery. He was blessed with inexhaustible energy. As well as doing experiments and keeping abreast of the scientific literature in such diverse fields as immunology, embryology, genetics and endocrinology he found time to engage in local politics and give much thought to the ethical implications of his work. He also felt very strongly that he had a duty to engage with the public in explaining what he was trying to achieve.
Bob was born in 1925 in the Yorkshire mill town of Batley, the middle of three sons. His father spent much time away from home labouring on the Settle to Carlisle railway, while his mother was a machinist in a local mill. The three boys were bright and, on relocation of the family to Manchester from where his mother originated, all obtained scholarships to attend the Central Boys’ High School there. Given his mother’s annoyance when the eldest declined to take up his scholarship, Bob and his younger brother had no option but to do so. He was not the first Nobel Laureate this school produced as James Chadwick received the Prize for Physics in 1935 for discovering the neutron.
On leaving school in 1943 Bob’s education was interrupted by a 5-year stint in the army. A surprise to all of us who got to know him well and, I suspect an equal surprise to Bob, was his being deemed suitable for training as an officer. However, he found his strong egalitarian principles ill-suited him to life in the Officers’ Mess. Aside from the opportunity to travel, an obvious highlight during this period was his being granted 9months’ compassionate leave to help run a sick friend’s farm in the Yorkshire Dales. This experience, coupled with earlier childhood visits to this exceptionally beautiful part of the country, engendered his life-long love of the Dales, which he continued to visit with his family whenever the opportunity arose.
On being de-mobbed in 1948, Bob resumed his education by enrolling to read Agricultural Science at the University College of North Wales at Bangor, taking whatever holiday jobs were available to support his studies. While choice of this subject was clearly driven by his farming experiences, he soon became disillusioned with the course, finding it utterly devoid of scientific rigour. His switch to the Zoology Department was made too late to salvage more than a pass degree. This mortifying experience might have altogether blighted his academic prospects were it not for Professor Conrad Waddington’s foresight in accepting him to do a diploma in genetics at Edinburgh University. Bob once again took whatever casual work he could find to fund his diploma course and, following its successful completion, was accepted to do a Ph.D. at Edinburgh under the supervision of Alan Beatty. For this, Bob focussed on early embryonic development from a genetic perspective with particular emphasis on the possibility that birth defects might arise through errors in partitioning of chromosomes during egg maturation prior to fertilisation. It was during these extraordinarily productive years that Bob, in collaboration with Ruth Fowler, demonstrated that eggs could be induced to mature according to a predictable schedule in adult mice by appropriate hormone treatment. Before his Edinburgh days were concluded, Bob married Ruth, a granddaughter of one of his great scientific heroes, Lord Rutherford of Nelson, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908. Following a year at the California Institute of Technology Bob was recruited by Sir Alan Parkes to the Experimental Biology Division of the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill on a five-year appointment to investigate the prospect of an immunological approach to contraception. While he long retained an interest in immunology, its application to birth control seemed unpromising then as it still does now. Hence Bob found his attention drawn once more to the subject of egg maturation, with the situation in the human holding particular interest. When knowledge that a member of his staff was engaged on work in this contentious area reached Sir Charles Harington, the Director of the Institute, he ordered it to cease. Bob had no choice but to obey this edict, especially since Alan Parkes was no longer there to defend him, having been appointed to the newly established Mary Marshall and Arthur Walton Chair of Reproductive Physiology at Cambridge in 1961. However, Parkes did offer Bob a post in his new laboratory, but as this was for a year hence, he spent the intervening one in Glasgow, commuting back and forth weekly to North London where Ruth and their growing family were based. The attraction of Glasgow was John Paul, an acknowledged expert in tissue culture with whom Bob, together with Robin Cole, made the first foray into deriving stem cells from early embryos of both rabbit and mouse. This was done almost two decades before further such attempts were made and well before techniques became available for critically assessing the developmental status of the resulting cell lines.
Bob joined the Marshall Laboratory in 1963 on a Fellowship from the Ford Foundation of America, and continued to work in or near Cambridge for the rest of his life. It was during his early days in Cambridge that human egg maturation and its anomalies, and achieving human fertilisation in vitro, really came to dominate his interest. It was also at this time that he showed that cells could be taken from very early rabbit embryos to accurately determine their sex without jeopardising their continued normal development to birth. This study offered proof of principle for preimplantation genetic diagnosis, an approach that was not applied to early human embryos until more than two decades later. This, like Bob’s efforts to isolate stem cells from early embryos, is a testimony to the extraordinary farsightedness that pervaded his work. However, in order to advance his human work without a medical qualification he needed to persuade at least one clinician that his aims were not completely barmy. While several obstetricians willingly provided fresh ovarian material as a source of eggs, Bob needed help of a more invasive nature to enable him to expose sperm placed in special chambers to the environment of the uterus. This measure was assumed, mistakenly as it turned out, to be required for making sperm competent to fertilise eggs. It did, however, serve in 1967 to focus Bob’s attention on the work of Patrick Steptoe, an obstetrician based in Oldham, Lancashire, who was engaged in developing the vitally relevant ‘keyhole’ surgical techniques called laparoscopy. They met and started collaborating in1968, and it was with the help of Barry Bavister, a graduate student in the Marshall Laboratory, that Bob and Patrick were then able to provide the first compelling evidence that human fertilisation could take place outside the body. Publication of this study in Nature in February 1969 marked the beginning of a very arduous and taxing first nine years of collaboration between Bob and Patrick which, aided by Jean Purdy, a state registered nurse who had recently joined Bob as his assistant, was directed single-mindedly to developing in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) as a treatment for infertility.
One source of their difficulties was Bob’s very strongly held view that scientists had a responsibility to inform and engage with society at large about their work. He thus took every opportunity to contribute articles to both the broadsheet and tabloid press to explain what he was trying to achieve, a measure that engendered extraordinary hostility from many quarters, including from within both the medical and scientific communities. The reaction of the British Medical Association was notably extreme, prompting Bob to sue it successfully for libel on several occasions. Scientific critics, including at least two Nobel Laureates, either declared his work to be immoral or branded him a self-publicist, to the extent that he felt marginalized by his peers. However, Bob was not alone in feeling ill-used because the medical fraternity ruled at that time that there was little merit in the laparoscopic techniques that Patrick was engaged in developing.
There is little doubt that the hostility towards the pair hardened their resolve to attain their goal, the path to which was also beset by a range of technical and strategic challenges. To optimise the plethora of variables necessary to obtain viable embryos reproducibly through IVF in the mouse required very large numbers of eggs, something utterly unattainable in the human. Bob, aided by Jean and his mobile laboratory, made endless trips between Cambridge and Oldham as and when Patrick had volunteers from whom to recover eggs. He used these precious specimens to try to generate embryos for replacement in the womb. After many blind alleys and reverses, the final reward for both of them and the couples they strove to help was the birth at 11.47pm on July 25 1978 of a healthy girl weighing 5lb12oz. Louise Brown’s arrival marked the beginning of a positive change, albeit a slow one, in attitude to Bob and Patrick’s work. Nowadays, of course, IVF and related forms of assisted conception in vitro are so commonplace as to hardly raise comment in most quarters.
However, Bob’s difficulties did not end with the birth of Louise Brown because on Patrick’s retirement from Oldham they were unable to find suitable accommodation within Cambridge University to continue their work. In the absence of any public funding, either then or at any time before or later, their work had to stop for three years while they raised private money to purchase and equip Bourn Hall in Cambridgeshire with the necessary clinical and laboratory facilities. Bob, never idle, took the opportunity afforded by this hiatus to write a formidable tome entitled ‘Conception in the Human Female’ which one of his former scientific critics hailed as the best textbook on obstetrics published in the 20th Century.
Although Patrick seemed generally to have been regarded by the media as the senior partner in their collaboration, possibly because he was medically qualified, he openly acknowledged that his role was one of facilitator and that the scientific impetus came from Bob. This was also clear to staff of Bourn Hall Clinic to whom they were known as “Steppy” and “The Boss”.
Bob can also be regarded as one of the founders of Reproductive Bioethics, an academic subject that enjoys great prominence to today, but that hardly existed in 1971 when he co-authored a paper devoted to ethics and law that was quite remarkable in its scope and insight. He was also very active on the international scene as one of the founders of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology and its journals, which he edited for many years until he felt obliged to resign on failing to persuade his colleagues to embrace the latest electronic methods of publication. He then set up a new journal entitled Reproductive BioMedicine Online with emphasis on rapid publication and the airing of controversies. The many contributions he made to this journal during his ten years as editor testify to his extraordinary breadth of interests and deep knowledge of scientific literature.
When attempting to solicit more appropriate recognition for Bob from people of authority in UK science, I was all too often confronted with the unhelpful response that he was ‘controversial’. This made me wish to grab their collar and shake them for not having the wit to appreciate that no one who achieved what he had in the climate that then prevailed could possibly have been otherwise. The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine is commonly shared, is not infrequently contentious, and is often given for clever science, which might possibly benefit mankind at some time in the future. None of these qualifications applied to Bob’s award of the Prize in 2010, by which time well over four and a half million babies had been born as a result of his pioneering work. The only sad note is that this ultimate recognition of the value of his work was not made earlier when he was in good enough health to collect it personally in Stockholm.
Bob will be remembered by all those he supervised, worked with or helped as a remarkable individual, blessed with extraordinary farsightedness, energy, humanity, compassion and humour. He will be sorely missed. He is survived by his wife Ruth and five daughters, Caroline, Jenny, Sarah, Meg and Anna, and twelve grandchildren.
Professor Sir Richard Gardner, FRS, one of Professor Sir Robert Edwards’ first research students.