Almost forty years ago, three people, the researchers of IVF, made a revolution in the reproductive medicine. Two male British scientists Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe gained worldwide fame as the developers of in vitro fertilization, and of their colleague, embryologist Jean Purdy, who took equal participation in research and experiments, the whose archive records were recently made public, the story unfairly keeps silence.
One of the male scientists, Dr. Robert Edwards, tried to have her work recognized, but instead it has gone largely unknown for four decades.
“I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself,” Dr. Edwards wrote in a letter to Oldham Health Authority in 1981, adding that Dr. Steptoe had also acknowledged Ms. Purdy’s role in a book published by the two male scientists.
Dr. Edwards’s letter was among the papers released on Monday from the archives of the University of Cambridge, where Dr. Edwards was a professor of physiology. Ms. Purdy, a nurse and embryologist, traveled with him for 10 years to Oldham, in northern England, where they worked on the in vitro effort, he wrote, “and contributed as much as I did to the project.”
When he wrote that, officials were preparing to install a plaque in Oldham to mark the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the world’s first “test tube” baby.
The papers of Dr. Edwards, who died in 2013, show that he argued repeatedly for equal recognition of Ms. Purdy, but to no avail — the Oldham Health Authority put his name and Dr. Steptoe’s on the plaque, but chose to omit hers. (Another plaque with the same wording was placed at Oldham District General Hospital, where Ms. Brown was born, in 1992.)
Only in 2015 did the Royal Society of Biology put up a plaque celebrating all three researchers.
The ability to combine egg and sperm in a laboratory, and implant the resulting embryos in women, signaled a revolution in fertility treatment. News coverage from the 1970s onward has consistently referred to Dr. Edwards and to Dr. Steptoe, an obstetrician-gynecologist who was a pioneer in laparoscopy, as the creators of in vitro fertilization, not mentioning Ms. Purdy.
The archives do not betray the motivations behind the Oldham Health Authority’s decision. The agency no longer exists, and its records from that time do not survive, according to one of its successor bodies.
“Whether it was a case of sexism or not is not explicitly shown in the archive,” Madelin Evans, an archivist who worked for 18 months on cataloging the papers of Dr. Edwards, wrote in an email. “However, I would conclude that there were a combination of factors leading to the lack of recognition.”
These included her sex; a tendency to dismiss the work of nurses as opposed to that of doctors and scientists; and her field of research, embryology, whose importance was not yet widely recognized, Ms. Evans said.
Professor Dame Donald, a physicist and the Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, where the archives are held, wrote in an email on Monday: “In the case of Purdy it is hard not to see this as sexism at work, made worse by the fact that Purdy was a trained nurse not an academic scientist.”
Ms. Purdy had died in 1985, Dr. Steptoe in 1988, Dr. Edwards in 2013.
Photo: Central Press / Hulton Archive
Based on New York Times