The Nobel prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded this year to Robert G. Edwards, an English biologist who with a physician colleague, Patrick Steptoe, developed the in vitro fertilization procedure for treating human infertility.
Since the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978, some four million babies worldwide have been conceived by mixing eggs and sperm outside the body and returning the embryo to the womb to resume the normal development. The procedure overcomes many previously untreatable causes of infertility and is used in 3 percent of all live births in developed countries.
Dr. Edwards, a physiologist who spent much of his career at Cambridge University in England, devoted more than 20 years to solving a series of problems in getting eggs and sperm to mature and successfully unite outside the body. His colleague, Dr. Steptoe, was a gynecologist and pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, the method used to extract eggs from the prospective mother.
Though in vitro fertilization is now widely accepted, the birth of the first test tube baby was greeted with intense concern that the moral order was subverted by unnatural intervention in the mysterious process of creating a human being. Dr. Edwards was well aware of the ethical issues raised by his research and took the lead in addressing them.
The objections gradually died away, except on the part of the Catholic church, as it became clear that the babies born by in vitro fertilization were healthy and that their parents were overjoyed to be able to start a family. Long-term follow-ups have confirmed the essential safety of the technique.