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Obituaries

Robert Edwards; Nobel laureate perfected in vitro process

Dr. Robert Edwards holding the world’s first in vitro fertilization baby, Louise Joy Brown, with colleague Patrick Steptoe (right).

1978 file/Keystone/Getty Images

Dr. Robert Edwards holding the world’s first in vitro fertilization baby, Louise Joy Brown, with colleague Patrick Steptoe (right).

NEW YORK — Robert G. Edwards, who opened a new era in medicine when he joined a colleague in developing in vitro fertilization, enabling millions of infertile couples to bring children into the world and women to have babies even in menopause, died Wednesday at his home near Cambridge, England. Dr. Edwards was 87.

Suffering from dementia, he was said to have been unable to appreciate the tribute when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2010.

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A flamboyant and colorful physiologist who courted the press and vigorously debated his critics, Dr. Edwards and his colleague in the effort, Patrick Steptoe, essentially changed the rules for how people can come into the world. Conception was now possible outside the body — in a petri dish.

The technique has resulted in the births of 5 million babies, according to the International Committee Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies, an independent nonprofit group.

Yet, like so many pioneers of science, the two men achieved what they did in the face of a skeptical establishment and choruses of critics, some of whom found the idea of a ‘‘test-tube baby’’ morally repugnant. Denied government support, the men resorted to private financing. And they did their work in seclusion, in a tiny windowless laboratory at a small, out-of-the-way English hospital outside Manchester.

It was there, after outwitting a crowd of reporters, that they delivered the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978. Her parents, John and Lesley Brown, had tried for nine years to have a child — a period that coincided with Dr. Edwards’ research.

He first had the idea for in vitro fertilization in the 1950s and after beginning his research in earnest in the late 1960s, he stayed with it for nine years, through trial and error, disappointment and triumph.

Several times a week he drove three to four hours from his academic office in Cambridge to pursue the work at Oldham General Hospital. He and Steptoe finally succeeded in fertilizing an egg, growing it briefly in a petri dish, and transferring it to a woman’s uterus to produce a baby.

Steptoe, who died in 1988, did not receive a share of the Nobel because the prizes are not awarded posthumously.

Dr. Edwards’s motivation — his passion, in fact — was helping infertile women, said Barry Bavister, a retired reproductive biologist who worked with the pioneer. “He believed with all his heart that it was the right thing to do,’’ Bavister said.

During the frustrating years before that first IVF birth, Dr. Edwards was undaunted by critics who said he might be creating babies with birth defects — undaunted even by the qualms of some of his own graduate students. One, Martin Johnson, wrote that he and a fellow graduate student, Richard Gardner, ‘‘were very unsure about whether what Bob was doing was appropriate, and we didn’t want to get too involved in it.’’

Johnson added that when he saw ‘‘bigwigs of the subject’’ who were ‘‘lambasting into Bob’’ and telling him not to continue, ‘‘you had to say: ‘Well, what’s going on here? Can one man be right against this weight of authoritative opinion?’’’

In 1971 Dr. Edwards’s application for research support from the British government was turned down, in part because a committee reviewing his application thought it would be more prudent to perfect the method in nonhuman primates.

And then there was Dr. Edwards’s personality. Committee members wrote that they were uncomfortable with his ‘‘tendency to seek publicity in the press, television and so on.’’

Finally, the committee thought that the hospital where Dr. Edwards and Steptoe worked was insufficiently equipped.

The two men resorted to obtaining private funds and continued their work.

In a paper published a decade ago in Nature Medicine, Dr. Edwards explained that he first got the idea for human IVF when he was a Ph.D student at Edinburgh University. He was working with mouse embryos and testing hormone preparations that induced female mice to ovulate. Years later, he asked gynecologists if they would give him ovarian tissue that they had removed from patients for other reasons. Dr. Edwards sought to induce the eggs in the tissue to mature. Then he would fertilize them and transfer them to infertile women to produce pregnancies.

“Some gynecologists approached about this project candidly responded that they thought the idea preposterous,’’ Dr. Edwards wrote. But one, Dr. Molly Rose, who had delivered two of Dr. Edwards’s five daughters, said she would do it.

The Roman Catholic Church denounced the process, arguing that human life should begin only through intercourse and not artificially. The Vatican said Dr. Edwards ‘‘bore a moral responsibility for all subsequent developments in assisted reproduction technology and for all abuses made possible by IVF.’’

In 2011, Dr. Edwards was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II ‘‘for services to human reproductive biology.’’

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