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Prof. Sir Robert Edwards Nobel Laureate: A tribute to a poineer and my teacher

By Prof Giwa Osato-Osagie

The transition of a great man  cannot be without recognition of his contributions and realities of his life from the perspective of whoever is referring to his life. Professor Sir. Robert Edwards was an outstanding Scientist who made the transition of his laboratory work into reality in clinical medical practice for infertile couples.

Dr. Robert Edwards as he was known had his medical education at Cambridge University and his Clinical training at St Mary’s Hospital, University of London. His interest in research led him back to the Physiology Department at Cambridge University where he taught mammalian reproduction physiology. I met Dr. Robert Edwards in 1967/1968 when I was a medical student at Cambridge University.

Younger Don

He was one of the younger Dons that the medical students liked. He had a soft, easily understood diction and could be heard clearly at the back of the class. He was friendly and very pleased to explain matters to us. Many of us thought he was “mad” when he told us of the possibilities of human invitro fertilization during a physiology lecture in 1967.

I was very interested in physiology in the second year medical Tripos. When we showed interest in his research on invitro fertilization of rabbit oocytes he sent me a reprint of one of his publications and referred me to earlier publications by an American scientist on rabbit oocyte fertilization.

*Sir. Robert Edwards
*Sir. Robert Edwards

Dr. Robert Edwards collaborated with Dr. Patrick Steptoe, an experienced gynaecologist who had acquired skills in looking into the abdominal cavity with a laparoscope. Between Dr. Patrick Steptoe and Dr. Robert Edwards, they agreed that if human oocytes were recovered by laparoscopy by Dr. Patrick Steptoe, Dr. Robert Edwards could fertilize the oocytes in the laboratory and Dr. Patrick Steptoe could implant the embryos in the woman’s uterus.

Dr. Robert Edwards worked in the physiological laboratories of Cambridge University while Dr. Patrick Steptoe was a Consultant Gynaecologist at the Oldham General Hospital, in Oldham, England.

High powered Researcher

This collaboration between high powered academic researcher and high level clinical skills led to the first successful pregnancies from human IVF and later the birth of the first live baby from IVF, baby Louse Brown in 1977.  Their first human pregnancy was a tubal (ectopic) pregnancy before success with Louse Brown.

Dr. Robert Edwards had to travel to Oldham each time a case of IVF was to be done. With the successful outcome of the collaboration, Dr. Steptoe and Dr. Edwards formed a more workable, permanent and very pleasant but productive venue for the continuation of their work.

A stately home on large grounds – Bourn Hall near Cambridge became the centre for further expansion of human IVF and research. Bourn Hall became an international centre for IVF with man successes and set standards in research and clinical services. It also ran several training courses related to IVF.  Several Nigerians attended courses or worked at Bourn Hall with Dr Edwards and his colleagues.

I was part of the pioneer IVF team in Lagos, the first in West, East and Central African.  I had also gone for training in Melbourne, Australia in Prof Edwards’s unit.

The success of the partnership of Dr. Steptoe and Dr. Edwards led to worldwide fame and also translated into wealth for both partner. They both travelled widely giving lectures and were honored by many organizations and Nations.

It was at the World Congress of Fertility and Sterility in Caracas, Venezuela in that I met Professor Robert Edwards again after 10 years. He was aware of our efforts in Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Lagos, Nigeria, and took a photograph with me and Prof. Dapo Ashiru.

We had succeeded in human IVF in Nigeria in 1989 as the first in West, East and Central Africa. The British success in IVF was quickly followed by success in Australia by the Teams at Melbourne led by Prof. Carl Wood and Prof Alex Lopata. Then came several countries in Europe and then the USA and the rest of the world.

Five million IVF babies

Today there are more than five million babies born through IVF world wide and hundreds of IVF clinics. In Nigeria for example the first and only IVF Unit was at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital and College of Medicine, University of Lagos in 1983 onwards, leading to success in 1984 and a live baby in 1989. There were, at the end of 2012, 29 IVF clinics in Nigeria more – than all other Sub-Saharan African countries put together excluding South Africa.

Steptoe and Edwards were honoured for their pioneering work. Patrick Steptoe was much older than Robert Edwards. He was given National Honors by HM The Queen of England and died several years ago. Robert Edwards after Steptoe’s death was made a Knight by the Queen in 2011 for services to “Human Reproductive Physiology” and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2010.

The award to Prof. Robert Edwards of the Nobel Prize had the unusual ripost of the disapproval by the Vatican who stated that the Professor was ethically and morally responsible for the aftermath of IVF.

One must state that millions of women and men are grateful today for the breakthrough which has produced over five million babies in several countries to couples of varying religious persuasion and ethnicity. To these people and their families and friends, the IVF success is a priceless gift. It is for nations, societies and individuals to agree on how to apply scientific breakthroughs in the context of an evolving social norm.

Most countries, where IVF is practiced have regulations and registration bodies that lay guidelines for such practice including who can perform what role in IVF.

Most countries in Sub-saharan Africa have no such regulations and Registration Bodies.

This is a major fallacy as Sub-saharan Africa is where there is greatest need for IVF in the World in view of the prevalence of tubal and male factor infertility. In these countries of which Nigeria which population of 160 million people is more than the others put together, the earlier well-reasoned regulations, guided by experts and the community are in place the better.

These regulations should not be ones crafted to stop progress by people who know very little about the practice.

Dr. Patrick Steptoe and Professor Sir Robert Edwards have opened an avenue to almost a world without end for successfully treating infertility. It is for those who live to decide how far they can go along that avenue.

Professor Osato F. Giwa-Osagie, OON, is Distinguished Professor of the University of Lagos.


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