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Woman Scientist Denied Recognition for I.V.F. Development

Jane Purdy, a nurse and embryologist, contributed to the production of I.V.F., yet her name was never mentioned in connection to the procedure until 2015.

Dr. Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, the two British male scientists who helped with the development of I.V.F., both gained worldwide fame for their contributions and published a book about their work. Steptoe recognized Purdy’s contributions within the book, but Edwards worked publicly to acknowledge Purdy’s larger role.

Edwards wrote several letters to several different institutions on Purdy’s behalf, including Oldham Health Authority in 1981. “I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself,” he wrote.

Despite many written letters and efforts to gain Purdy the recognition she deserved after 10 years of work, Oldham Health Authority chose to put up a plaque to mark the birth of the first “test tube baby” in 1978 without Purdy’s name attached. They later put up another plaque at the hospital where Brown was born with the same wording.

Newly released papers that belonged to Edwards show that he tried extensively for the past four decades to get people to recognize Purdy for her efforts. Only as recently as 2015 did the Royal Society of Biology put up a plaque that included and celebrated all three scientists.

The released papers do not explain why the Oldham Health Authority decided to exclude Purdy from the plaques, but there were several historical factors contributing to the sexism Purdy faced.

Four decades ago, it was common to discriminate based on sex. Purdy was a nurse and more likely to be dismissed than a doctor or scientist. Embryology was also not a very large topic of research yet, so it wasn’t considered very important.

Professor Dame Athene Donald, a physicist and Master of Churchill College at Cambridge wrote in an email, “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.”

What makes matters worse is that Edwards was the sole recipient of a Nobel Prize in 2010 for development of in vitro fertilization. By that point, Purdy had died in 1985 and Steptoe in 1988.

Purdy is not the only female scientist to be overlooked in the history books. Rosalind Franklin contributed to the discovery of the DNA double helix, but like Purdy, couldn’t be awarded a Nobel Prize by the time her efforts were realized because she had died. The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

Another scientist, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, was the first to observe pulsars and co-wrote a paper announcing her discovery. However, when the Nobel Prize was awarded, it went to her male co-author instead.

In the case of Purdy, the omission of her name from the plaque is a direct act of sexism. omen in science are still not given full credit for their work today, and are often omitted from the citation portions of academic papers or discriminated against because of their gender. These scientists deserve more for the work they’ve done.

Featured Image by Instituto Bernabeu on Flickr.

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0

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