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Churchill History Lecture Series: An Intimate Portrait of Robert Edwards and his IVF Revolution

30 Sep 2021
Location: Online
Start time: 17:30
End time: 19:00

A chance to hear about this new biography, LET THERE BE LIFE: An Intimate Portrait of Robert Edwards and his IVF Revolution, by the physiologist Roger Gosden.

This is the story of a miner’s son who brought a revolution to medical science. It is the life of Robert Edwards, an affable Yorkshireman called “Bob” by his friends and colleagues and hailed around the world as the “Father of In Vitro Fertilisation” (IVF). He dismissed the flattering tribute, saying that a team of relay-runners is needed to finish a long race, but his leg of the course demanded the most stamina and dogged determination. It took more than brilliance and Edwards' luck; the winner needed character, charisma, and the gift of a robust constitution.

Robert Edwards at Bourne Hall

Robert Edwards at his office in Bourn Hall with pictures of IVF babies.

The history of his career is a list of "firsts"—the first fertilisation of human ova in vitro, first test-tube baby, first embryonic stem cells, and first genetic testing of microscopic embryos. After those achievements he didn’t sit back for accolades and awards but rolled up his sleeves again to apply science for people with the heartache of infertility or family histories of dreaded disease or disability. In opening the first IVF clinic in the world, he became a biomedical entrepreneur, a role added to an overfilled life as a university teacher, globe-trotting lecturer, politician, scientific publisher, hobby farmer, and proud family man. His energy was as legendary as his legacy.

Glass

Glass vessel in which the first embryos from IVF were incubated.

It was an uphill struggle to study human embryos against the gravity of political, scientific, and theological opposition. Some authorities called him crazy, others said he was a murderer. The problem of "Generation" had tantalised some of the greatest minds in the history of science, including Aristotle and William Harvey. They wanted to know where babies come from, said by some to be sacred knowledge that should be off-limits to research, so when Bob came along hoping to create embryos in his Petri dish, he was accused of playing God. Branded Dr Frankenstein, it was a foolish label that did not stick because IVF is a cooperation between nature and medicine to help struggling life to flourish. He was first to lay groundwork for the ethical care of human embryos in vitro, and to urge responsible research before clinical application. These were foundations for the social acceptance of a controversial technology and legislation for a booming baby-making industry in the future.

Robert Edwards with Louise Brown and the Bourne Hall team

Robert Edwards (centre) standing next to Louise Brown at the Bourn Hall IVF clinic.

It took passion, but was it a narcissistic ambition or did it have deeper roots? Bob wore his celebrity status lightly. He grew up in a family and community that had experienced hardship and world wars, and had observed conflict and suffering first-hand, although never a victim himself. It was natural for an optimistic young man in the post-World War 2 generation to admire science, justice, and equality as hallmarks of a progressive era. By chance, he landed in a field ripe for development and close to that dearest hope of humanity—raising healthy children. IVF was his great gift and noble achievement, borne out by five million births in the year of his death, and will soon double in number. His two closest colleagues never lived to see so much flourishing, and for him the fulfilment of patients’ hopes was the greatest reward because the acclaim of a Nobel Prize and knighthood from H.M. the Queen was almost too late.

Not every nobelist deserves the attention of a biographer, but Bob left a legacy to society that has diversified the meaning of "family" through one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the last century. Planned as a life story, this book has fanned into a broader narrative because the man and IVF are braided histories. It has required forays into social history and politics to understand the character that drove endeavour, and what a character! Until his final illness, he never stopped pressing forward to new goals, fighting for reproductive liberties, and when the toil of laboratory and clinical work was over, he became an innovative publisher to democratise scientific knowledge.

Although prepared with a scholar’s care, this book is not primarily for academic libraries but intended for readers who want an accessible story about the history of IVF and the men and women who brought the revolution. The young generation today who regard IVF as standard treatment will be amazed how hard it was won, and that without Bob and his colleagues we might still be waiting.


Roger Gosden is a British and American physiologist. After growing up in London, he trained as a graduate student and research fellow under (Sir) Robert Edwards in Cambridge. He moved to the Edinburgh Medical School in 1976 where for 18 years he taught and built a research team focused on female reproductive biology and embryology. During those years he spent time as a visiting fellow or professor at Duke University, the University of Southern California, the Stazione Zoologica di Napoli, and Sun Yat-sen University. In 1994, he founded a professorial research group on fertility preservation at Leeds University, transferring to McGill University in 1999 and then to Eastern Virginia Medical School as the Howard & Georgeanna Jones Professor of Reproductive Medicine. Besides many papers, he has authored and edited books, organised international conferences and been a consultant to governments and industry. Committed to teaching as well as research, he launched from Leeds and Virginia two online master degrees in clinical embryology. His last full-time appointment was at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City where he joined his wife, Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for America’s first successful IVF programme. Currently, he teaches endocrinology at William & Mary as a Visiting Scholar. After a busy career he now pursues lifelong passions for natural history and writing, including blogging (https://rogergosden.com) and through founding a boutique publishing firm for biomedical memoirs and nature. His time is divided between Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia.

LET THERE BE LIFE: An Intimate Portrait of Robert Edwards and his IVF Revolution is published by Jamestowne Bookworks.

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