Professor Sir Robert Geoffrey Edwards, a British physiologist and pioneer in reproductive medicine, specifically in the area of in vitro fertilization (IVF), died yesterday after a prolonged battle with illness. He was 87. The University of Cambridge made the announcement.
IVF is a treatment for infertility which is employed when other methods of assisted reproductive technology have failed. In vitro fertilization is a process in which an egg (ovum) is extracted and fertilized by sperm outside the body in a laboratory.
The fertilized egg (zygote) is then transferred into the patient’s uterus with the intent of creating a pregnancy. There it will continue to germinate, as a typical pregnancy would, and if effective will ultimately lead to the birth of a baby.
Edwards, who developed the treatment, was awarded the Nobel Prize in the category of Physiology or Medicine in 2010. Due to his state of dementia his wife, Ruth Fowler Edwards, the granddaughter of physicist Ernest Rutherford and daughter of physicist Ralph Fowler, received the award on his behalf during the ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10, 2010.
The discovery – of the fundamental principles of how human eggs mature, how hormones regulate their maturation, and the ideal conditions and point in which an egg can be fertilized – has made Edwards and his scientific partners responsible for over five million births worldwide to couples and women who would have otherwise been incapable of conceiving children.
Edwards, along with his colleague, surgeon Patrick Steptoe, successfully applied conception with the birth of Louise Joy Brown, on July 25, 1978. She holds the unique title of being referred to as the the first official “test-tube baby,” born from Lesley Brown.
Lesley and her husband, John, tried unsuccessfully to conceive naturally for nine years, before she finally acquiesced and enrolled for an experimental IVF procedure. After extracting samples from the couple, strategically mixing those in a petri dish (not a test tube) she managed to become pregnant with the implanted embryo. She underwent a planned C-section at Oldham General Hospital in the UK the following July. Louise was born perfectly healthy, weighing five pounds, 12 ounces.
Two years later Edwards and Steptoe founded the world’s first center for IVF treatment, the Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge, UK. The revolutionary but controversial breakthrough research laid the groundwork for further innovations in the area of reproductive science.
Edwards, who was a fellow of Churchill College and the University of Cambridge, is survived by his spouse, five children, and 12 grandchildren.
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