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Oldham's health chief vows to redress Jean Purdy plaque snub

17 June 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1002

An Oldham councillor is urging for Jean Purdy, one of the three people who developed IVF, to be formally acknowledged for her work, after letters revealed how the Oldham Health Authority ignored requests for Purdy to be recognised in the 1980s.

The three people who collaboratively developed IVF were Purdy, a nurse and embryologist, Professor Robert Edwards, a physiologist, and Dr Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist. They established a research laboratory in Oldham. Purdy was the first to notice that a fertilised egg in a dish was dividing to create new cells. This fertilised egg went on to become Louise Brown, the world's first IVF baby in 1978. 

In 1980, the health authority chose to recognise the team's work on IVF on a plaque outside what was then Dr Kershaw's Hospital in Royton. Professor Edwards and Dr Steptoe were mentioned by name, but Purdy was not. Letters held in the University of Cambridge's Churchill Archives Centre show that Professor Edwards argued for including Purdy, writing to the authority:

'I feel strongly about the inclusion of the names of the people who helped with the conception of Louise Brown.

'I feel this especially about Jean Purdy, who travelled to Oldham with me for ten years, and contributed as much as I did to the project. Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.'

However, the health authority went ahead with wording that excluded Purdy. The plaque reads: 'Human in vitro fertilisation followed by the world's first successful pregnancy, was performed in this hospital by Mr Patrick Steptoe, Dr Robert Edwards and their supporting staff in November 1977.'

Madelin Evans, an archivist at the Churchill Archives Centre, said the likely reason for Purdy's exclusion from the plaque 'probably had quite a bit to do with the fact she was a nurse, an embryologist and a woman I suppose', she told the Guardian.

Mention of Purdy's contribution was also largely absent from in press reports on Brown's birth at the time. 

Oldham Council's present cabinet member for health and social care, Zahid Chauhan, has now pledged that health authority's the snub will be rectified and that Purdy should be formally recognised for her work. 

'I am going to make sure that we recognise those people because they have all done a lot for the wider society, and globally,' Chauhan told the Local Democracy Reporting Service. 'Inventing IVF treatment would not have been possible without those people – very much including nurse Jean Purdy.'

Professor Edwards won the Nobel prize in medicine for his work on IVF in 2010, by which time both Dr Steptoe and Purdy had died. Dr Steptoe was honoured with an additional blue plaque outside his childhood home last month. 

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Female nurse who played crucial role in IVF ignored on plaque
The Guardian |  10 June 2019
Jean Purdy: Oldham Council urged to honour IVF pioneer
BBC |  11 June 2019
Oldham’s health chief vows to honour IVF pioneer Jean Purdy after snub
Oldham Evening Chronicle |  11 June 2019
The Papers of Sir Robert Edwards
Churchill College Cambridge |  10 June 2019
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