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IVF bottles and syringes on exhibit at the Science Museum in London in July 2018. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Overlooked

Female IVF pioneer Jean Purdy long went unrecognized, archival letters show

By WITW Staff on June 13, 2019

In 1980, officials in Oldham, England, installed a plaque honoring Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, two doctors who had pioneered in vitro fertilization at a lab in the town. Not mentioned on the plaque: Jean Purdy, a nurse and embryologist who made vital contributions to the research.

The omission came despite the fact that Edwards repeatedly lobbied for recognition for Purdy within the scientific community, newly released archival documents reveal.

As The New York Times reports, the University of Cambridge is making Edwards’ private papers accessible to the public. Among the doctor’s archives is a letter he wrote to Oldham Health Authority before the plaque was unveiled, stressing that Purdy “traveled to Oldham with me for 10 years and contributed as much as I did to the project. Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.”

The health authority, however, opted to leave Purdy’s name off the plaque, which celebrated the 1978 birth of Louise Brown—the first baby born via IVF, which involves combining sperm and egg in a lab and implanting the embryo back into the mother’s body.

Indeed, while Edwards and Steptoe are well known for revolutionizing the field of fertility treatment — Edwards, who died in 2013, won a Nobel Prize in 2010 — Purdy remains obscure. She began working closely with Edwards in 1968, and in 1969, she traveled to California to conduct vital research in follicular fluid. She participated in IVF trials and helped establish the world’s first IVF clinic in Cambridgeshire in 1980. The BBC reports that it was Purdy who first spotted the fertilized egg that would become Louise Brown dividing to make new cells. 

Madelin Evans, an archivist who catalogued Edwards’ papers, told the Times that a number of factors likely contributed to Purdy’s “lack of recognition”: her sex, the tendency at the time to minimize nurses’ work, and the fact that embryology was still an emerging field in the 1970s and 80s.

In light of the revelations contained in Edwards’ letters, Zahid Chauhan, an Oldham council official, is talking to hospital chiefs and fellow council officials about an appropriate way to honor Purdy’s legacy. “Inventing IVF treatment would not have been possible without [early innovators] — very much including nurse Jean Purdy,” he said, according to the BBC. “And while she isn’t around to see that, I think it’s important that we recognize her contributions as well.”

Read more at the New York Times and the BBC.

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