8th March 2021
As a clinic dedicated to helping people to conceive, on International Women’s Day we always celebrate the achievements of two important women who helped IVF and fertility treatment to become a success: Jean Purdy and Ruth Fowler.
Jean Purdy is recognised as the world’s first female "clinical embryologist"; whilst Ruth Fowler was the wife of Bob Edwards, the scientist who pioneered IVF.
In July 1978, Louise Brown was the first baby to be born following conception outside of the body (in vitro) via the novel treatment called IVF.
At the time, news of the world’s first IVF baby caused international shock-waves and there was much criticism of this new technology. However, nowadays, IVF is accepted by all faiths and cultures are the globe.
"My birth had caused a worldwide sensation and thrown up all kinds of moral and religious arguments" - Louise Brown
The birth of Louise is recognised as the achievement of the embryologist Sir Robert ‘Bob’ Edwards and the clinician Patrick Steptoe. Indeed, in 2010 Bob was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for an achievement that has conferred “the greatest benefit to humankind”.
What is less well known are the roles of Jean and Ruth in this revolutionary tale.
Jean Purdy - the world's first female embryologist
Jean was a nurse who started working with Bob in 1968 as a research assistant. Bob was the driving force, but it was Jean who was in the lab, adding the sperm to a single egg collected by Patrick.
Jean was the first person to describe the formation of the human embryo growing to a stage called the blastocyst, 5 days after fertilisation. This is standard practice nowadays, but just imagine what it must have felt like to see a human blastocyst under a microscope for the very first time!
Sadly, Jean died from a melanoma in 1985, at the age of 40 years.
(Left - Jean Purdy and Bob Edwards, after the successful news of the birth of the world's first IVF baby in 1978).
It was no longer just Patrick and me. We had become a threesome...[she was] the indomitable helper without whom none of our work would have been possible" - Bob Edwards (from his autobiography)
Ruth Fowler - the wife and driving force behind Bob Edwards
Ruth was a geneticist and reproductive scientist and worked with Bob on many breakthroughs that paved the way for IVF. However, Ruth took a backseat, to raise their 5 daughters, but remained the driving force supporting Bob as he continued in the quest to make human IVF a success.
When Bob was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, it was Ruth who was able to attend the ceremony, described as his "wife and long-term scientific companion".
"Behind every great man, there had to be a great woman" - Arethra Franklin
Celebrating two female of the first scientists in assisted conception
Against a backdrop of public criticism and numerous failures, optimising the chance of fertilisation back in the 60s and 70s must have been such a challenge. We are grateful to these two strong women for staying positive and helping the team get over all of the hurdles.
On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of Jean and Ruth, true champions who forged innovation through technology and helped bring the chance of a family to so many.
Photograph kindly provided by Prof. Kay Elder, Bourn Hall