Two male British scientists gained worldwide fame as the developers of in vitro fertilisation, but both viewed a woman, Jean Purdy, as an equal partner in the breakthrough, records made public Monday show. One of the male scientists, Dr. Robert Edwards, tried to have her work recognised, but instead it has gone largely unknown for four decades.
"I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself," Edwards wrote in a letter to Oldham Health Authority in 1981, adding that Steptoe had also acknowledged Purdy's role in a book published by the two male scientists.
Edwards' letter was among the papers released Monday from the archives of the University of Cambridge, where Edwards was a professor of physiology. Purdy, a nurse and embryologist, traveled with him for 10 years to Oldham, in northern England, where they worked on the in vitro effort, he wrote, "and contributed as much as I did to the project."
When he wrote that, officials were preparing to install a plaque in Oldham to mark the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the world's first "test tube" baby.
The papers of Edwards, who died in 2013, show that he argued repeatedly for equal recognition of Purdy but to no avail — the Oldham Health Authority put his name and Steptoe's on the plaque but chose to omit hers. (Another plaque with the same wording was placed at Oldham District General Hospital, where Brown was born, in 1992.)
Only in 2015 did the Royal Society of Biology put up a plaque celebrating all three researchers.
The ability to combine egg and sperm in a laboratory, and implant the resulting embryos in women, was a revolution in fertility treatment. News coverage from the 1970s onward has consistently referred to Edwards and Steptoe, an obstetrician-gynaecologist who was a pioneer in laparoscopy, as the creators of in vitro fertilisation, not mentioning Purdy.
The archives do not betray the motivations behind the Oldham Health Authority's decision. The agency no longer exists, and its records from that time do not survive, according to one of its successor bodies.
"Whether it was a case of sexism or not is not explicitly shown in the archive," Madelin Evans, an archivist who worked for 18 months on cataloguing the papers of Edwards, wrote in an email Monday. "However, I would conclude that there were a combination of factors leading to the lack of recognition."
These included her sex; a tendency to dismiss the work of nurses as opposed to that of doctors and scientists; and her field of research, embryology, whose importance was not yet widely recognised, Evans said.
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Professor Dame Athene Donald, a physicist and the Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, where the archives are held, wrote in an email Monday: "In the case of Purdy it is hard not to see this as sexism at work, made worse by the fact that Purdy was a trained nurse not an academic scientist."
There is a long history of female scientists' contributions being overlooked.
Rosalind Franklin's X-ray crystallography data contributed to discovery of the DNA double helix, but she was not widely recognised until much later. Her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, along with James Watson and Francis Crick, won a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1962; by then, Franklin, who had died, was ineligible, because the award is not given posthumously.
Similarly, Edwards was the sole recipient of a Nobel Prize in 2010 for developing in vitro fertilisation; Purdy had died in 1985 and Steptoe in 1988.
As a graduate student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist, was the first scientist to observe pulsars and was an author of the paper announcing the discovery, but the Nobel Prize awarded for it in 1974 went to her faculty adviser, Antony Hewish.
Lise Meitner was one of the physicists who discovered nuclear fission, and though she received many honours in her lifetime, the 1944 Nobel Prize for that breakthrough went to her collaborator, Otto Hahn.
"I am afraid it is and always has been not uncommon for women not to receive full credit for their work," Donald said.
"What I find more shocking is that the Oldham plaque ignored her in the face of repeated requests from Edwards that she should be treated as an equal partner," she added.
Women in science still struggle with long-standing biases, discrimination and harassment but also with the lack of acknowledgement of their work, Donald suggested, pointing to studies on rates of citation in academic papers.
"I think many female scientists today still feel due credit is not given for their work," she said.
Written by: Iliana Magra
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