Jean Purdy

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Jean Purdy
Jean Marian Purdy

25 April 1945
Cambridge, England
Died16 March 1985(1985-03-16) (aged 39)
Known forIn vitro fertilisation
Scientific career

Jean Marian Purdy (25 April 1945 – 16 March 1985)[1] was a British nurse and embryologist and a pioneer of fertility treatment. Purdy was responsible with Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe for developing in vitro fertilisation. Louise Joy Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born on 25 July 1978,[2][3] and Purdy was the first to see the embryonic cells dividing.[4] Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on the development of in vitro fertilisation; however, because the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, neither Purdy nor Steptoe were eligible for consideration.[5] Purdy was a co-founder of the Bourn Hall Clinic but her role there and in the development of IVF was ignored for 30 years.


Purdy attended Cambridgeshire High School for Girls between 1956 and 1963 where she became a prefect, joined sports teams and played violin in the orchestra. She trained to be a nurse at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.[6]


After gaining registration as a nurse, Purdy moved to Southampton General Hospital, but was unhappy there and applied for a research post locally to work on tissue rejection, before transferring to Papworth Hospital in her home county where the first open-heart surgeries (and later, heart transplants) were pioneered in Britain. In 1968, she applied for and obtained a post with Robert Edwards at the Physiological Laboratory in Cambridge.[6][7]

Steptoe became the Director of the Centre for Human Reproduction, Oldham in 1969. Using laparoscopy, he collected the ova from volunteering infertile women who saw his place as their last hope to achieve a pregnancy. Purdy began her work with Steptoe and Edwards as a lab technician.[8] She played a significant and increasingly vital role, to the extent that, when she took time off to care for her sick mother, work had to pause.[8]

During this time they had to endure criticism and hostility to their work. It was Purdy who first saw that a fertilised egg, which was to become Louise Brown, was dividing to make new cells.[9] The birth of Louise Brown in 1978 changed perceptions and, to accommodate the increased demand and to train specialists, the team founded the Bourn Hall Clinic, Cambridgeshire in 1980.[9]

Purdy was a co-author on 26 papers with Steptoe and Edwards,[4] and 370 IVF children were conceived during her career.[6]

Death and legacy[edit]

Purdy died in 1985 at the age of 39 from malignant melanoma[6] and is buried in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire.[10][1]

University College London's award for the MRes Reproductive Science and Women's Health is named after her.[11]

Purdy will be portrayed by New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie in the upcoming film Joy,[12] and by English actress Meg Bellamy in Gareth Farr's upcoming play A Child of Science.[13]


When it was decided that a plaque should be put up to record the achievement, Edwards suggested that the plaque should be phrased "Human in vitro fertilisation followed by the world's first successful pregnancy was performed at this hospital by Dr. Robert Edwards, Mr. Patrick Steptoe, Miss Jean Purdy and their supporting staff in November, 1977". Recognition for Purdy was ignored and the Oldham NHS Trust received a letter of complaint from Edwards in 1982.[8] Bourn Hall erected a plaque in 2013 which again ignored Purdy's contribution.[7]

In a plenary lecture in 1998, celebrating the 20th anniversary of clinical IVF, Robert Edwards gave tribute to Jean Purdy, saying: "There were three original pioneers in IVF and not just two".[6] Professor Andrew Steptoe, son of Patrick Steptoe, unveiled a plaque in 2015 that acknowledged the three people who were involved in developing IVF.[14] In 2018, to mark the 40th anniversary of IVF, Bourn Hall unveiled a memorial to Jean Purdy, the "world's first IVF nurse and embryologist. Co-founder of Bourn Hall Clinic".[15]


  1. ^ a b Johnson, Martin H. (14 December 2018). "IVF: The women who helped make it happen". Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online. 8: 1–6. doi:10.1016/j.rbms.2018.11.002. ISSN 2405-6618. PMC 6352853. PMID 30723816.
  2. ^ "1978: First 'test tube baby' born". BBC News. 25 July 1978. Retrieved 22 March 2019. The birth of the world's first "test tube baby" has been announced in Manchester (England). Louise Brown was born shortly before midnight in Oldham and District General Hospital
  3. ^ Moreton, Cole (14 January 2007). "World's first test-tube baby Louise Brown has a child of her own". The Independent. London. Retrieved 21 May 2010. The 28-year-old, whose pioneering conception by in-vitro fertilisation made her famous around the world. The fertility specialists Patrick Steptoe and Bob Edwards became the first to successfully carry out IVF by extracting an egg, impregnating it with sperm and planting the resulting embryo back into the mother
  4. ^ a b Weule, Genelle (25 July 2018). "The first IVF baby was born 40 years ago today". ABC News. Retrieved 25 July 2018.
  5. ^ "The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – Press Release". The Nobel Prize. 4 October 2010. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
  6. ^ a b c d e Gosden, Roger (2017). "Jean Marian Purdy remembered – the hidden life of an IVF pioneer". Human Fertility. 21 (2): 86–69. doi:10.1080/14647273.2017.1351042. PMID 28881151. S2CID 5045457.
  7. ^ a b Johnson, Martin H.; Elder, Kay (2015). "The Oldham Notebooks: an analysis of the development of IVF 1969–1978. V. The role of Jean Purdy reassessed". Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online. 1 (1): 46–57. doi:10.1016/J.RBMS.2015.04.005. PMC 5341260. PMID 28299364.
  8. ^ a b c Halliday, Josh (9 June 2019). "Female nurse who played crucial role in IVF ignored on plaque". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 10 June 2019.
  9. ^ a b Johnson, M. H.; Franklin, S. B.; Cottingham, M.; Hopwood, N. (2010). "Why the Medical Research Council refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe support for research on human conception in 1971". Human Reproduction. 25 (9): 2157–74. doi:10.1093/humrep/deq155. PMC 2922998. PMID 20657027.
  10. ^ "Louise Brown honours Jean Purdy, the 'forgotten' female IVF pioneer". Bourn Hall. 20 July 2018. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  11. ^ "The Jean Purdy Award". University College London. 21 January 2019. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  12. ^ Dalton, Ben; Leffler2023-09-23T10:56:00+01:00, Rebecca. "Thomasin McKenzie, Bill Nighy, James Norton lead IVF film 'Joy' for Netflix, Pathe with production underway (exclusive)". Screen. Retrieved 20 May 2024.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ Ltd, Supercool (18 May 2024). "A Child of Science". Bristol Old Vic. Retrieved 20 May 2024.
  14. ^ Kirby, Dean (16 March 2015). "Scientists who pioneered the first test-tube baby honoured with a blue plaque". men. Retrieved 26 July 2018.
  15. ^ "World's first test tube baby pays tribute to 'forgotten' pioneer of IVF". ITV News. 20 July 2018. Retrieved 8 August 2020.

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