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Radio Review: The New Elizabethans - Robert Edwards

30 July 2012
Appeared in BioNews 667

The New Elizabethans: Robert Edwards

BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 24 July 2012

Presented by James Naughtie

'The New Elizabethans: Robert Edwards', BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 24 July 2012

'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.

The New Elizabethans: Robert Edwards
BBC iPlayer |  16 October 2021
4 February 2013 - by Sandy Starr 
In 2010, Professor Sir Robert Edwards was awarded a long overdue Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for his the part he played in pioneering both the theory and practice of IVF. This conference focused on the kind of cutting-edge research that takes Professor Edwards' legacy forward...
8 October 2012 - by Helen Brooks 
If you're after a tough, probing Paxman-style interview you'll be disappointed. However, Jim Al-Khalili's interview with the UK's next chief scientific advisor makes for entertaining and diverting listening...
25 June 2012 - by Cait McDonagh 
Lesley Brown, the first woman to give birth after undergoing IVF treatment, has died aged 64. She made history when her daughter Louise was born in 1978 at Oldham General Hospital...
13 June 2011 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
IVF pioneer Professor Robert Edwards has been awarded a knighthood in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours. The knighthood follows Professor Edwards' Nobel Prize in Medicine win last year for his work developing this fertility treatment. His work led to the birth of Louise Brown, the first so-called 'test tube' baby, in July 1978...
11 October 2010 - by Professor Martin H Johnson 
Professor Robert Edwards was last week awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on IVF [1]. Bob might seem an obvious award candidate since IVF and related treatments are taken for granted nowadays. Most of us know family, friends and/or colleagues who have used IVF, PGD, surrogacy or gamete donation. During the lonely days of the 1960s and 70s, the situation was very different...
11 October 2010 - by Rosemary Paxman 
A Vatican official has criticised the decision to award British IVF pioneer Professor Robert Edwards the Nobel Prize in Medicine, saying the choice was 'very perplexing'...
4 October 2010 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
British scientist Professor Robert Edwards, 85, has been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine for his ground-breaking IVF work...
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