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Plaque to finally honour snubbed IVF pioneers

15 July 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1006

The Royal Oldham Hospital is commissioning a new plaque to honour Jean Purdy and Sister Muriel Harris who played a pivotal role in the world's first IVF baby. This comes almost a month after Oldham councillor Zahid Chauhan called for hospital chiefs and the council to formally acknowledge Purdy's contributions (see BioNews 1002).

Last week, Oldham health chiefs said they want to put the 'record straight' and honour the whole team, as reported by the Democracy Reporting Service.

Nicola Firth (director of nursing and acting chief officer of Oldham Care Organisation) wrote in an open letter that 'Everyone would fully recognise that IVF was a ground-breaking contribution to medical science and has helped hundreds of thousands of couples and families across the world since… We fully agree and support the need to install a commemorative plaque to recognise not only the crucial role that Jean Purdy played but also that of Sister Muriel Harris.' 

The world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born at The Royal Oldham Hospital on July 25, 1978. The mostly widely recognised pioneers of this work are Professor Robert Edwards, a physiologist, and Dr Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist. However, two overlooked female nurses also played crucial roles.

Purdy, a nurse and embryologist at Royal Oldham, was the first to notice that the fertilised egg was dividing to make new cells. Sister Harris, an operating theatre superintendent, worked with Professor Edwards and Dr Steptoe to establish operating theatre facilities. Although both contributions were vital to the success of IVF, they have, until now, gone largely unrecognised. 

In 1980, the health authority recognised the team's work on a plaque outside what was then Dr Kershaw's Hospital in Royton. Professor Edwards and Dr Steptoe were mentioned by name, but Purdy and Sister Harris were only recognised as 'supporting staff'. Professor Edwards won the Nobel prize in medicine for his work on IVF in 2010, by which time both Purdy and Sister Harris had died. 

Chauhan, who called on the hospital to commit to a new memorial, told BBC News that he was 'delighted' the trust had agreed to work with him to correct the 'historic mistake', and recognise not only Purdy but also Sister Harris and their colleagues. He said he was 'proud to stand up for our unsung heroes.'

Healthcare bosses have also welcomed the proposal, including Dame Donna Kinnair, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, and Ruth May, England's chief nursing officer.

Jean Purdy and another 'forgotten' nurse to be honoured for IVF work
Oldham Evening Chronicle |  5 July 2019
Jean Purdy and another 'forgotten' nurse WILL be honoured for IVF work
Manchester Evening News |  5 July 2019
Jean Purdy: Plaque will honour 'snubbed' IVF pioneer
BBC |  8 July 2019
17 June 2019 - by Martha Henriques 
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...
11 September 2017 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
Jean Purdy, embryologist to the world's first IVF baby, should be celebrated as IVF's third pioneer, says the British Fertility Society...
10 April 2013 - by Sarah Norcross 
Professor Sir Robert Edwards (27 September 1925-10 April 2013) has died after a long illness....
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