Nurse who helped pioneer IVF went unrecognised despite colleague’s protests

Nobel Prize winner fought for recognition of Jean Purdy’s role on commemorative plaque

Nobel Prize winner Robert Edwards repeatedly fought for recognition of Jean Purdy’s role on commemorative plaque

Nurse and embryologist Jean Purdy with physiologist Robert Edwards in their research
laboratory in Cambridge, 1968. Picture: Getty Images

A nurse involved in pioneering work that enabled the birth of the world’s first IVF baby was left off a plaque marking the achievement, despite protests from her colleagues, newly-released documents reveal.

Nurse and embryologist Jean Purdy worked alongside reproductive biologist Robert Edwards and gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe on research at a laboratory in Oldham that led to the successful use of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) to treat infertility.

The big breakthrough came with the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978.

‘An equal contributor’

Professor Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010 and was knighted in 2011. Neither award can be made posthumously, so acknowledgement came too late for Ms Purdy and Dr Steptoe, who died in 1985 and 1988 respectively.

However, newly released letters from the archive of Professor Edwards, who died in 2013, show how he repeatedly fought for official recognition of the equal contribution of Ms Purdy.

In correspondence between Professor Edwards and Oldham Health Authority in the lead-up to the unveiling of an official plaque marking the birth of Louise Brown, he argued numerous times for Ms Purdy’s name to be recorded alongside his and that of Dr Steptoe.

‘Jean Purdy travelled to Oldham with me for ten years and contributed as much as I did to the project,’ he wrote. ‘Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.’

Yet his repeated appeals fell on deaf ears and Ms Purdy’s name was left off the official plaque outside Kershaw’s Cottage Hospital near Oldham.

However, a blue plaque featuring all three names was installed outside the former hospital site in 2015 by the Society of Biology.

Instrumental in IVF trials and first clinic

Ms Purdy joined Professor Edwards in 1968 and worked closely with him, travelling to the United States in 1969 to undertake key research on follicular fluid. She was instrumental in enabling the continued trials of IVF and in locating and setting up the world's first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall in Cambridgeshire in 1980.

An estimated six million babies have been born through IVF around the world.

The private papers of Professor Edwards are now open to the public at Cambridge University’s Churchill Archives Centre.

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The papers of Sir Robert Edwards

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