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Jean Purdy: the Untold Pioneer of IVF



Author: Thomas Wang ‘26

Editor: Helen Chow


In the United States, talk about reproductive rights have come to the forefront of everyday politics. Just recently, the supreme court of Alabama placed a statewide ban (2) on in-vitro fertilization (IVF), a form of reproductive care that involves fertilizing embryos in a test tube, and then implanting them in utero. Given the new focus that has been placed on IVF, it is important to shed light on the development and importance of IVF as a scientific achievement.

Around the world, IVF has been used to give parents who couldn’t have children by traditional means another chance. IVF involves extracting mature eggs from ovaries, which are then fertilized in vitro, meaning in a test tube. These fertilized embryos are then implanted in a uterus where eventually a baby can reach full term. Although costly and time-consuming, IVF allows couples to overcome infertility, as well as provide a real means of child-bearing for non-heterosexual couples (3). It is estimated that over 12 million children across the globe have been the result of IVF (4), representing a monumental achievement in healthcare since the first IVF birth in 1978.

However, like many major scientific discoveries in the past, there are often those who aren’t recognized for their work in pioneering. Rosalind Franklin and her contributions in determining the structure of DNA is perhaps the noted example. IVF is no exception. In 2010, the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine was awarded to Robert G. Edwards for his work in reproductive technologies, specifically IVF (5). Along with him, Patrick Steptoe is also widely recognized as a pioneer of IVF. While both of these scientists’ contributions were undeniable, the history books have left out another: British nurse and embryologist Jean Purdy.

The process leading up to the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was a decade-long project worked out in a lab taking up a room of less than 8 square meters (86 square feet). In 1968, Jean Purdy was hired by Robert Edwards, an embryologist, as a research assistant at Cambridge. Edwards had just started a collaboration with a physician named Patrick Steptoe, who had brought to the UK a technique called a laparoscopy, in which eggs are extracted without need for major surgery (6). The team would work on using laparoscopy to extract eggs from patients with occluded fallopian tubes, meaning they weren’t able to release eggs normally. Jean Purdy would be hired to run this lab, and over the course of the next ten years, would work tirelessly to maintain the lab and carefully produce experimental data. It was noted by Edwards that Jean was “ the patient, indomitable helper without whom none of our work would have been possible” (7). An analysis of the lab notebooks used in the project, showed that the meticulous organization and systematic recording of most of the project’s lifespan were carried out by Purdy; and in total, Purdy “probably spent longer working in Oldham than did Edwards” (8), working in maintaining cell cultures, assisting with patient care, and keeping the lab functioning.

Perhaps in part due to Purdy’s early death from melanoma in 1985, Purdy’s influence on the invention of IVF has gone largely unnoticed. A quick google search looking for who invented IVF would show only Steptoe and Edwards. In the 1980s, a plaque dedicated to the development of IVF was erected at Oldham that left out Purdy’s name, much to the protest of Edwards, who wrote to the Oldham Area Health Authority, that Purdy “contributed as much as I did to the project”(9). It was only 2015 that a plaque was erected recognizing all 3 researchers (10)

It is without question that without Purdy, the IVF we know today would be drastically different. In a time where much controversy is being wrought about science, in particular reproductive science, it is more important than ever to recognize the invisible labor that went into one of the most important medical procedures we have today.


 



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