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Pioneering nurse whose work led to first test tube baby was snubbed, new papers reveal

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi
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Louise Brown was the first test tube baby, and it's now been revealed that one of the scientists behind IVF - Jean Purdy - was snubbed.

The story of Jean Purdy is, unfortunately, one common to many female scientists.

There are plenty of women in science whose contributions have either been ignored or overlooked in favour of their male counterparts, so much so that the phenomenon even has a name: The Matilda Effect.

In recent years, we’ve started hearing more about the women whose work has proved essential in our lives, from Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who helped calculated the exit trajectories of astronauts in the space race, to Mae Jemison, a NASA astronaut who was the first African American woman to travel into space.

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One woman whose name deserves wider recognition is Jean Purdy, the clinical embryologist who was one of three pioneers who researched IVF, leading to the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown.

Purdy worked alongside Professor Sir Robert Edwards and medical doctor Patrick Steptoe on the project, but her work has gone largely unrecognised.

Now it’s been revealed that Edwards fought to have Purdy’s contribution acknowledged, but was ignored.

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Newly released letters from Edwards’ archive show correspondence between the scientist and Oldham Health Authority in the early 1980s regarding the unveiling of an official plaque to mark Brown’s birth.

Edwards wrote that Purdy “travelled to Oldham with me for 10 years and contributed as much as I did to the project”. He continued: “Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.”

Purdy began working with Edwards in 1968, and travelled with him to California in 1969 to undertake key research on follicular fluid. She was instrumental in enabling the continued trials of IVF and in locating and organising the adaptation of Bourn Hall as the world’s first IVF clinic.

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Brown’s parents, Leslie and John Brown, had been trying to conceive for nine years before they tried IVF. Brown’s birth was a symbol of hope for couples all around the world, changing how people saw IVF: Edwards, Steptoe and Purdy’s work had been ridiculed for years, and the NHS had repeatedly declined support for the trio’s work.

Edwards and Steptoe were hailed for their work with an official plaque, but Purdy never got quite the same recognition from Oldham Health Authoriy, despite her crucial role and the appeals from Edwards.

Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010 for his work on IVF, but neither Steptoe nor Purdy were recognised by the Nobel committee, as the prize cannot be awarded posthumously.

Now, with the release of Edwards’ letters, Purdy’s contribution to IVF can no longer be denied or underplayed.

Image: Getty

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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