At RMA, we are celebrating Women’s History Month by shining a spotlight on women who have made contributions to the fields of science, technology, and medicine. Our third spotlight is on Jean Purdy, who was instrumental in the first In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) birth in the world.
You’ve probably heard of that birth, of Louise Brown, born July 25, 1978, in England. And you’ve probably heard of the two men who invented the procedure, IVF, used to help Mrs. Brown’s parents conceive outside the body – Dr. Patrick Steptoe and Dr. Robert Edwards, who won the Nobel Prize for the achievement in 2010.
But what about Jean Purdy, the nurse, and embryologist with whom the two closely worked?
You may have never heard of her, as she was, until recently, left out of the recognition. But Ms. Purdy’s work was crucial in the scientific breakthrough, and even though Dr. Edwards sought exposure for her role, Ms. Purdy wasn’t given her due credit until years later, when previously unseen records uncovering her contribution were released to the public.
“I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself,” Dr. Edwards wrote in a 1981 letter, adding that Ms. Purdy “contributed as much as I did to the project.”
Ms. Purdy traveled with Dr. Edwards for a decade to Oldham, in Northern England, so they could work on developing the IVF technique with Dr. Steptoe. According to news reports, Ms. Purdy co-authored more than 25 papers with the duo and co-founded the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, England that served as one of the world’s first IVF centers.
“We were a threesome … [she was] the patient, indomitable helper without whom none of our work would have been possible,” Dr. Edwards wrote in his autobiography.
What’s more? As an embryologist, Ms. Purdy was the first person to see the cells dividing in the embryo that would become Louise Brown.
Ms. Purdy died in 1985, but her contribution to IVF will never be forgotten.