Celebrating Jean Purdy this International Women's Day

8th March 2021

On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of Jean Purdy, a true champion who forged innovation through technology and helped bring the chance of a family to so many.

Jean Purdy is widely recognised as the world’s first female clinical embryologist.

Back in July 1978, a baby girl called Louise Brown was born. Now you may think “so what, babies are born every day”. However, what was special about this little girl is that she was the first baby to be conceived outside of the body, via a treatment called in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).

At the time, the news of the world’s first IVF baby caused international shock-waves and there was much criticism of this new technology. However, since 1978, acceptance of IVF as a way to help people to conceive, is accepted by all faiths and cultures.

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 is the role of Jean in this revolutionary tale. Jean was a nurse who started working with Bob in 1968 as his 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 recognise and describe the formation of the human embryo growing to a stage called the blastocyst, 5 days after fertilisation. This is standard practice nowadays, but as an embryologist myself, I can only imagine what it must have felt like to see a blastocyst under a microscope for the very first time!

For those of us in the field, we know how meticulous you have to be to optimise the chance of fertilisation. However, back in the 60s and 70s, Jean was helping to forge the route. She was making the culture solutions and helping to identify a single egg collected from just one follicle via the technique of laparoscopy! Against a backdrop of public criticism and numerous failures, it takes a strong woman to stay positive and help the team get over all of the hurdles. Yet, failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success (to quote Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post).

In his autobiography, Bob acknowledged the role of Jean, stating “It was no longer just Patrick and me. We had become a threesome…[she was] the patient, indomitable helper without whom none of our work would have been possible…”.

Sadly, Jean died from a melanoma in 1985, at the age of 40 years.


On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the achievements of Jean Purdy, a true champion who forged innovation through technology and helped bring the chance of a family to so many.

Photographs kindly provided by Prof. Kay Elder, Bourn Hall

144a New Walk, Leicester, England, United Kingdom, LE1 7JA

Tel: 0116 3800611

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