30 July 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 667
BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 24 July 2012
Presented by James Naughtie
'The New Elizabethans', Radio 4's series profiling the great and the good of the last 60 years, turned to the life and achievements of Sir Robert Edwards, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on IVF. Edwards' name entered the public consciousness in 1978 when Louise Brown, the first 'test tube baby', was born.
In exploring Edwards' life, the presenter, James Naughtie, opens by talking about that breakthrough. Early on, he remarks that the term 'test tube baby' is popular, but highly inaccurate. Considering the programme only lasts for 13 minutes, Naughtie deals with these kinds of misconceptions well; not everyone will have realised that the popular tabloid headline was misleading.
IVF was, and to a lesser extent still is, a subject of ethical debate. Almost as soon as the programme begins we are reminded of the concerns about IVF - particularly from religious and professional organisations - present in the early days. This was particularly well-handled and put the early breakthroughs in context. For Edwards' work was not just an amazing step forward for science, it had a huge impact on societal mores, and Naughtie does well to make this clear.
We hear sound clips, including one from Lesley Brown, Louise's mother, saying how her daughter would tell her 'Mummy, I'm a test tube baby' when she was just a girl. This kind of thing gives an added emotional heft to the weight of Edwards' scientific achievements. As Naughtie mentions, an estimated five million babies have now been born who were conceived via IVF.
The programme discusses Edwards' background and how he came to work with Dr Patrick Steptoe, with whom Edwards might have shared the Nobel Prize had Dr Steptoe not passed away in 1988 - 22 years before the prize was awarded.
I felt that Dr Steptoe's own contribution might have been rather overlooked. Just a few weeks previously Radio 4 produced a joint profile of John Lennon and Paul McCartney and I couldn't help wondering if a similar tack would have paid dividends here.
But, still, the show made a compelling case for Edwards' inclusion as one of the 'New Elizabethans'. In fact it did more than that and gave a succinct yet informative description of his work, pointing out just why it was so important.
The debate surrounding IVF has calmed down considerably and the treatment is now widely accepted, but it's interesting to hear about the controversial early days. For those with no knowledge of Sir Robert Edwards, this is an excellent introduction that can be listened to in a lunch break. For those who do know the story, it's a well-structured recap and, if nothing else, shows how far IVF has come since the 1970s.