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Jean Purdy: The Forgotten Female Pioneer Snubbed Of IVF Breakthrough

In 1978, the late British nurse and embryologist Jean Purdy, along with physiologist Robert Edwards and gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, became the first in the world to achieve in vitro fertilization, an artificial procedure where a sperm makes contact with an egg, outside the womb. This first successful attempt at IVF lead to the birth of Louise Brown, the first human to ever be conceived by artificial reproduction.

Being the first person to recognize and describe a blastocyst, Purdy developed many processes that became pertinent to understanding and undergoing IVF treatments. Hence, about 370 total infants were successfully conceived using artificial reproduction under Purdy’s tenure. Since then, roughly 8 million total babies were conceived with the procedure as of 2018, benefiting numerous infertile and LGBT+ families alike.

And yet, when Purdy’s colleagues were awarded an honorary plaque in Kershaw’s Cottage Hospital, the hospital where Louise Brown was born, Purdy’s name was absent.

The plaque’s official words read: “Human in vitro fertilization followed by the world’s first successful pregnancy, was performed in this hospital by Mr. Patrick Steptoe, Dr. Robert Edwards and their supporting staff in November 1977.”

Only until recently when letters from Dr. Edwards were recovered, did they reveal the Oldham Area Health Authority ignored the contributions and accomplishments of Purdy, even after multiple requests to credit her on the plaque. “Jean Purdy traveled to Oldham with me for 10 years and contributed as much as I did to the project,” Edwards wrote in one of his letters to the council, 39 years ago. “Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.”

So then why was Jean Purdy not credited on the plaque?

A definite reason wasn’t given by Oldham’s health council, but the answer is simple: classic misogyny. In the 70s, around the time Purdy was developing IVF with Edwards and Steptoe, women in the workplace were constantly undermined for their work, especially in fields like STEM. Nurses weren’t deemed as important as their male colleagues, many of whom were doctors or scientists. But even if a woman was a doctor or a scientist, and in this case, Purdy was, their contributions were significantly undercut.

This wasn’t the first time an important female figure was ignored while they were paving the way with scientific discoveries. Another British scientist, Rosalind Franklin, took an X-ray diffraction image that revealed DNA’s double helix structure. Maurice Wilkins, a colleague at her lab, mistook her for being an assistant as he communicated with scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, helping them piece together the structure of DNA. Later, after she passed, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins earned the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, snubbing Franklin of her crucial discovery.

Thus, Purdy’s snub serves as a stark reminder that while in pursuit of greatness and success, it’s imperative to honor the women that have continuously pushed the boundaries for humanity, leading us to greater knowledge every day. Applaud the discoveries they find, they inventions they build, and the art they create.

Image: National Geographic

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