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Call to remember 'forgotten' IVF pioneer Jean Purdy

11 September 2017
Appeared in BioNews 917

Jean Purdy, the world's first embryologist, should be celebrated as IVF's third pioneer, says the British Fertility Society (BFS).

It has called for her work to be recognised on the 40th anniversary of IVF next year, alongside that of her colleagues Sir Robert Edwards and Dr Patrick Steptoe.

'Sadly, it is only Steptoe and Edwards that most people remember. So, next year, when we celebrate 40 years since the birth of the first IVF baby, let us ensure it is Steptoe, Edwards and Purdy who are celebrated for their extraordinary achievements,' said the BFS in a statement.

Purdy started work as a nurse and was recruited by Sir Robert Edwards at the Physiological Laboratory in Cambridge in 1968 - ten years before the birth of world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown. They worked together, along with gynaecologist Dr Patrick Steptoe, until Purdy's premature death from melanoma in 1985. In 1980, she helped to launch fertility services at Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge, and was its technical director.

'The more I learn about Jean, the more I am in awe of her achievements. She entered the cutting-edge world of fertility science at 23 years old and carved out a vital role for herself,' wrote Professor Roger Gosden from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in a commentary about Purdy published last week in the journal Human Fertility.

But Purdy's work has largely went unrecognised. Even in the announcement of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which went to Sir Edwards for the development of IVF, her name was not mentioned while Dr Steptoe's was.

Nevertheless, both Sir Edwards and Dr Steptoe acknowledged her role in IVF clinical research and care. She was credited as an author on 26 academic publications between 1970 and 1985.

'It was no longer just Patrick and me. We had become a threesome…[she was] the patient, indomitable helper without whom none of our work would have been possible…,' Sir Edwards wrote in his autobiography, published in 1989.

In 1998, at a plenary lecture celebrating the 20th anniversary of IVF in Marrakesh, Sir Edwards again reminded everyone of Purdy's achievements. He said: 'There were three original pioneers in IVF and not just two.'

Purdy developed tasks and processes that are now a standard part of IVF treatments. She was also the first person to recognise and describe the formation of the early human blastocyst. Under her tenure, 370 babies were conceived using assisted reproduction.

Jean Marian Purdy remembered  – the hidden life of an IVF pioneer
Human Fertility |  7 September 2017
Remembering the third pioneer of IVF – Jean Purdy
British Fertility Society |  8 September 2017
15 July 2019 - by Dr Yvonne Collins 
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...
17 June 2019 - by Martha Henriques 
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