Remembering the third pioneer of IVF – Jean Purdy

Remembering the third pioneer of IVF – Jean Purdy

On IVF’s 40th anniversary we should be celebrating Jean Purdy – the world’s first embryologist – who died before she could see the full impact of her pioneering work.

Behind every Nobel Prize winning man, there is a brilliant woman, or so it seems. Like Rosalind Franklin (who jointly discovered the 3D structure of DNA) before her, Jean Purdy died very young, and has largely missed out on the recognition she deserves.

In fact, the press release announcing the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which went to Robert Edwards for the development of IVF, doesn’t even mention Purdy, even though Patrick Steptoe – also deceased – was given credit for his role in the development of IVF, though he too missed out on the Prize, which is never awarded posthumously.

Today (08 September 2017), a commentary by Purdy’s biographer, Professor Roger Gosden of The College of William and Mary in Virginia, USA, is published in the British Fertility Society Journal Human Fertility.

Professor Gosden said “The more I learn about Jean, the more I am in awe of her achievements. She entered the cutting-edge world of fertility science at 23 years old and carved out a vital role for herself. It is a tragedy that she died at 39, just seven years after the first IVF baby was born.”

Purdy’s only previous training was as a nurse and she had a little experience in a laboratory setting, nevertheless she defined the role of the embryologist, developing tasks and processes that are now a standard part of IVF treatments.

Edwards and Steptoe respected Purdy and included her as an author on 26 academic publications between 1970 and 1985. Edwards also acknowledges Purdy in his autobiography, saying:

“It was no longer just Patrick and me. We had become a threesome…[she was] the patient, indomitable helper without whom none of our work would have been possible…”

Sadly, it is only Steptoe and Edwards that most people remember. So, next year, when we celebrate 40 years since the birth of the first IVF baby, let us ensure it is Steptoe, Edwards and Purdy who are celebrated for their extraordinary achievements.