The Nobel Prize For Medicine Goes To…

By Andrew Moseman | October 4, 2010 9:52 am

RobertEdwardsRobert G. Edwards.

Edwards’ work creating in vitro fertilization led to the birth of four million babies, and now it has garnered him the Nobel Prize.

Dr. Edwards, a physiologist who spent much of his career at Cambridge University in England, spent more than 20 years solving a series of problems in getting eggs and sperm to mature and successfully unite outside the body. His colleague, Dr. [Patrick] Steptoe, was a gynecologist and pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, the method used to extract eggs from the prospective mother. Dr. Steptoe, who presumably would otherwise have shared the prize, died in 1988. [The New York Times]

After years of basic research on the idea, Edwards created a human embryo outside the body by the late 1960s. But it would be another decade of refinement before the birth of the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, in 1978.

Though it might seem a distant memory now, IVF stirred up a fuss in its early days.

The work by Edwards and Steptoe stirred a “lively ethical debate,” the Nobel citation said, with the Vatican, other religious leaders and some scientists demanding the project be stopped. When the British Medical Research Council declined funding for Steptoe and Edwards, a private donation allowed them to continue their research. [Christian Science Monitor]

Despite the controversy, Edwards says he felt compelled to charge ahead.

“The most important thing in life is having a child,” he said. “Nothing is more special than a child. Steptoe and I were deeply affected by the desperation felt by couples who so wanted to have children. We had a lot of critics but we fought like hell for our patients.” [The Guardian]

Update: Today also brought news of a cutting-edge technique that uses time-lapse videos of developing human embryos, which could improve IVF success rates.

The Nobels for chemistry, physics, literature, and peace are yet to come this week. The economics prize will be awarded a week from today.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: IVM: A Fertility Treatment that Could Mean Pregnancy for Half the Cost
DISCOVER: Human in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
80beats: Genetics Study: Will IVF Babies Face Health Problems Later in Life?
80beats: Controversial Study: Stem Cells Can Provide New Eggs for Infertile Women

Image: Nobel Foundation

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Rhacodactylus

    Awesome, well deserved!


  • Katharine

    I have a distinct problem with this year’s Nobel Prize awardee if he thinks the most important thing in life is crapping out another mouth to feed.

  • Gil


    Well, from a Darwinian standpoint, it is…

  • Steve

    Wow Katharine…you have officially waved goodbye to your pre-frontal cortex

  • amphiox

    In full agreement with #4, particularly since Edwards is speaking from decades of experience dealing directly on a personal level with infertile couples, and given the fact that the types of infertility treatable by IVF and the number of births resulting from IVF relative to the global population is such that IVF has absolutely no significant impact on world population growth whatsoever.

  • Ronan

    I don’t know, I can see Katherine’s point (but then, I’m kinda misanthropic, and think that there are quite enough humans on Earth as it is). There are a LOT of people already on Earth, and I personally would be appalled to have been even indirectly responsible for increasing their number by ~4 million (see previous caveat about being a misanthrope. You may commence despising me in three, two, one…) But then, as Amphiox pointed out, four million out of 6.7 billion isn’t really all that much. Overall, relatively little harm was probably caused by this, and a good deal of happiness likely resulted.

    …Even so, though. The (indirect) creation of ~4 million lives is quite a lot to have been responsible for. A frightening amount, I would feel–but I’m not Dr. Edwards, so…yeah. My reaction’s more emotional than logical.

  • Johnnny

    The problem lies in people wanting to have children because THEY want to have children. It isn’t about them, see they are already selfish before the kid even comes out of the shoot. You can’t promise children a bright future without a serious change in philisophical assumptions (or the elimination of them altogether). We don’t know why we are here and to assume we are here to enjoy OURSELVES and get stoned off of having kids is ridiculous. Katherine is absolutely right, however brash she may sound. Our approach to life is not very well thought out. Accept it.

  • aionaccount

    I must admit that the award doesn’t diminish peoples view of IVF babies. Nevertheless, we are so grateful for having him born to enable longed-for babies to be born, I wonder what happens if he isn’t born.


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