Robert (Bob) Edwards became a member of Churchill College in 1974, initially as a Senior Research Fellow until 1978, when he became a Fellow under Title E and later a pensioner Fellow under Title D. He had been educated at many universities including Wales, Edinburgh, CalTech, Cambridge and Glasgow. One of Bob’s first research students, Professor Martin Johnson described the supervision which his students received from him as “a ratcheted provocation which made them think outside the frame, to argue and to write up their results beautifully”. He had been called by Bob one evening to look down the microscope and together they had observed the first human blastocyst to have been created ‘in vitro’.
Bob Edwards demonstrated extraordinary determination and persistence in the face of criticism from his scientific peers, who would not believe his results of succeeding with in-vitro maturation of embryos. The opposition of law makers and some of the churches meant that in order to bring about the benefits which Bob’s research had brought to so many people, dogged persistence and stern good humour in the face of much opposition was necessary.
Bob was a maverick, an unorthodox and independently-minded person who refused to conform to the views of a particular group or party (though he was an enthusiastic member of the Labour Party). Within the Cambridge physiological establishment Bob did ‘real’, albeit unorthodox, physiology; he knew little or nothing about the movement of sodium and potassium ions across the membrane of the giant axon of the squid. Thinking outside the box was Bob’s great gift.
Bob’s IVF work with Patrick Steptoe (a pioneer in the use of laparoscopic surgery) is of course the stuff of legends. Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test tube baby’, was born in 1978. Today, IVF (in vitro fertilisation) is a standard and accepted procedure across the developed world, offering hope and joy to millions of couples who are otherwise unable to conceive. It involves harvesting a woman’s eggs, fertilising them with sperm outside the body, and then transferring the fertilised egg, or zygote, to the womb where, hopefully, it will implant and result in a normal pregnancy. ‘It’s a bit weird to think I was once a bunch of cells sitting in a freezer’, says one IVF child. Success rates for the procedure have steadily improved, now around 40 per cent for women under 37 and 20 per cent for women 38 and over. The procedure was developed in Cambridge by Bob Edwards in collaboration with Dr Patrick Steptoe. They opened the Bourn Hall clinic in 1980, twelve years after embarking on their joint project. Edwards’ laboratory work on the development of embryos and Steptoe’s gynaecological expertise proved the perfect scientific partnership. Back in the 1970s they were vilified: their work was ‘immoral’, ‘dehumanising’, ‘playing God’. It is neither that nor a ‘miracle’, just good science. Today, there are at least four million IVF children worldwide, and people have come to expect IVF schemes as part of their national health service entitlement.
He was working up until his 80th birthday on his ideas for the development of stem cell regeneration to combat disease.
Besides his scientific endeavours, Bob was the Chairman of the Cambridge City Council Finance Committee on which he did part of his work as a Labour party councillor for Newnham.
He received many honours. He took particular pleasure from the award in 2007 of the title of Chevalier de la Legion H’Honneur. The University of Cambridge gave him an honorary doctorate of science in 2003 and in 2010 he was awarded the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine. He was knighted in 2011.
Robert Geoffrey Edwards was born on the 25th September 1925 and died on 10th April 2013 after a long illness.