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Book Review: Let there be life

30 September 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1017

'Let there be life' is a biography of Professor Sir Robert Edwards, known to the world as the father of IVF, and to his friends as Bob.  

It is not an easy task to write about someone who so many people held in such high esteem and similar affection. People who only met Bob once or twice may have an almost proprietorial attitude to him and very definite views about the kind of man he was. Such is the nature of celebrity, even in science.

Having said that, it is hard to imagine anyone better to take on this task than Professor Roger Gosden. Roger is a great scientist and a pioneer in his own right, but a much quieter, more understated man than Bob, and he writes with objectivity, but with great affection. This is, after all, the story of a man that he knew, and who had a huge impact on the lives and careers of those who drifted within his sphere. It is also something of a quest, a quest to understand what drove Bob, what took him to the birth of Louise Brown and beyond, to embryonic stem cells and to his legacy, a new generation of science and scientists, not to mention the millions of IVF children across the world.

This book is primarily about people, not the science or the ethics. It takes us through Bob's family history and upbringing, and introduces us to the cast of characters involved in the pioneering days of IVF. For anyone whose has been involved in the field for a long time, it is a bit of a nostalgia trip. I read names that I have not come across for years, who were among the leading lights in the early days of clinical IVF, and the memories came flooding back.

However, the potential audience for this book extends beyond those who simply want to wallow in nostalgia. The accessible style makes it of value for anyone who has an interest in the IVF story, including patients. It would also make interesting reading for current researchers, particularly the detail of the practical difficulties that Bob, Patrick and co-workers were confronted with at the time.

Even things as basic as communication were not easy. Bob received the news of the first pregnancy by calling Patrick from a phone box outside a local inn, having been prompted to do so by a telegram (remember them?) delivered by the local postman. This seems barely believable in an age when we expect to be able to reach anyone at any time by one electronic means or another. 

As you would expect, the book also tells the story of the battles with the church and other conservative factions, 'casting science and reason against religion and tradition'. A line that follows historically through Galileo, the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial, every stage of assisted conception development and on to recent advances in embryoid research. We meet Mary Warnock and her committee and are reminded of Enoch Powell's efforts to stop progress by submitting a bill that did not overtly ban IVF, but would have imposed such restrictions as to bring the field close to a halt.

All this has been written about extensively before, including by Bob himself, but I would argue that Roger has turned this into a far more human narrative. Through the story we can also follow the increasing commercialisation of IVF, and a different type of competition to the race for scientific firsts. I am sure Roger, like so many of us, would love to be able to ask Bob his thoughts on the state of the field today. Doubtless we would get some pithy, down-to-earth, Yorkshire summing up, and it is the realisation that his voice has gone forever that makes us miss Bob most of all. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from both a professional and personal perspective. I was particularly delighted to learn that Roger's first meeting with Bob, like mine, involved a pub lunch, although my recollection is that we talked mainly about cricket, and the state of the zoology department in Bangor (where we both did our first degree), and not about science! 

Back in the 1990s I interviewed a potential embryologist for a job at Bourn Hall, who had never heard of Bob or Patrick Steptoe. Apart from their lack of preparation, it seems sad to me that there are people working in our field, the development of which is so recent in historic terms, who have no idea whose shoulders they are standing on. I may be biased, in that some of this history is my history too, but I do believe that scientists should have some understanding of their ancestry. This delightful book will give you that in the form a family history that has led us to where we are today. 

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