Since its beginnings, the science of genetics has been concerned with questions of how life is made, how characteristics are passed down through generations, and how variations occur within species. All of these things of course, revolve around one thing: reproduction. 36 years ago this month, the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’ was born in Greater Manchester, causing wonder and controversy in equal measure. Now, decades later, the technique of in vitro fertilisation, or IVF (which involves the fertilisation of a human egg outside the body and the transfer of the resulting embryo to the womb) continues to help many couples around the world who have difficulty conceiving. However, while most people have heard of IVF, perhaps not many are aware of its connection with Edinburgh.
From the early 1920s, Edinburgh’s Institute of Animal Genetics was largely preoccupied with studying classical genetical theories through practical animal breeding, but many of the resulting scientific findings had wider applications to human biology and health. One of the Institute’s early researchers was Arthur Walton (1897-1959), son of Edward Arthur Walton, one of the Glasgow school of artists. Arthur Walton’s primary interest was in the physiology of sperm, and he gained his PhD in Edinburgh in 1924. Shortly afterwards he departed for Cambridge to work under the reproductive physiologist F.H.A. Marshall (who had himself begun his career in Edinburgh), and here he remained for the rest of his life, chiefly occupied with questions of sperm motility. He developed a method whereby sperm could be kept alive for long periods, which formed the foundations for the development of artificial insemination. Although the procedure was developed for use with animals, its potential for the field of human reproduction was soon clear. Later in his life, Walton lectured at meetings organised by the Family Planning Association and served as chairman of the Society for the Study of Fertility during the 1950s.
Meanwhile, back in Edinburgh, reproductive physiology remained an important research focus at the Institute of Animal Genetics, and this was to continue after the Second World War when the Animal Breeding Research Organisation was established. One of the scientists involved with ABRO from the start was Richard ‘Alan’ Beatty, who was interested in ‘where reproductive biology and genetics overlap’. Beatty gained funding from the Medical Research Council to conduct research into aspects of reproductive biology, working closely with Anne McLaren, a leading scientist in mammalian reproductive and developmental biology. Beatty achieved the first successful non-surgical transfer of mammalian eggs and was a key advocate for the establishment of the Centre for Reproductive Biology at the University of Edinburgh. Importantly for our story though, he also supervised the PhD work of Robert G. Edwards, who gained his doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in 1955. Like Marshall and Walton before him, Edwards would also end up in Cambridge, and it was here that he began his collaborative work with Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologic surgeon from Oldham. Edwards developed a technique for fertilisation and early embryo culture, while Steptoe utilised laparoscopy to gain oocytes from patients with tubal infertility. This work led to significant opposition, including from research funders.
Quite naturally, then, the birth of Louise Brown on 25 July 1978 at Oldham General Hospital provoked a number of responses in the press. Alan Beatty obviously maintained an interest in the career of his former student, Edwards, as his archive papers contain a number of press clippings which document the media reactions to Brown’s birth. ‘Test-tube babies – the hazards and the hopes’, proclaims one headline, while ‘Test-tube babies – the risk’ warns another. One article asks the question ‘Why do so many people seem determined to blow up advances in biology and medicine into sensational science-fiction stories?’, dismissing the prospect that IVF could herald the practice of ‘generals ordering the test-tube production of 100,000 troops – presumably from some vast, Pentagon-run human hatchery’, or that babies may one day be incubated in the wombs of ‘host mothers’ on behalf of infertile couples, before being handed over to the parents after birth. Of course, we now know that the latter practice does occur, although the first is yet to happen…!
Robert Edwards received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010 for his part in developing IVF technology, which has since paved the way for stem cell research and techniques such as intracytoplasmatic sperm injection and embryo biopsy. Speaking to the BBC last year, Louise Brown commented: ‘When I was born they all said it shouldn’t be done and that it was messing with God and nature but it worked and obviously it was meant to be…it is just the beginning of life that’s a little bit different, the rest is just the same.’
Quotation from Louise Brown from here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-23448665