This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to a man whose name is synonymous with “test tube babies” although in point of fact, the equipment that is used for the actual fertilization is more like a petri dish.
Prof. Robert G. Edwards of Cambridge University in England began his career by systematizing the previous scientific literature on the conditions conducive to the successful fertilization of mammals within laboratory conditions. Then he significantly advanced it experimentally all the way to the human experience. His research partner, Dr. Patrick Steptoe, (who died in 1988 and therefore could not share in this Nobel Prize with him) was a well-respected gynecologist who had experience in gynecological laparoscopic surgery (minor surgery involving the insertion of tubes with lighting and micro-instruments into the gut). He adapted existing techniques to the retrieval of human eggs, from ovaries that had been hormonally stimulated to release them in multiples.
Through the combined efforts of Edwards and Steptoe, it finally became possible to combine sperm, which is readily available fresh or frozen (but which can be thawed on demand), with the ovum, after which the subsequently developing embryo could be frozen for later use, or be re-implanted fresh in the mother, whose uterus would, once again, be hormonally adjusted to be receptive.
Today in Western countries as many as one in 100 live healthy births are the happy result of their pioneering work.
Education and Professional Training
Professor Edwards was in many ways a clear cut, and almost predictable British scientific success story. He attended a prominent public high school in Manchester, England (“public” in the American sense, meaning not a private boarding school) that would be very much the equivalent of Boston Latin or Bronx Science in the US. He served honorably in the British Army, and then took a degree in Agriculture at the Bangor campus of the University of Wales (one of the three oldest and most prestigious of the “red brick” universities in that part of the UK ). He then took his Ph.D. in Animal Science with an emphasis on Reproduction and Genetics at the University of Edinburgh (one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished universities, and the strongest in Scotland in the sciences). He then spent the bulk of his career at Cambridge, arguably the UK’s greatest school in the sciences, and the university home of 88 previous Nobel Prizewinners, more than any other institution on earth.
Succeeding Despite A Lack Of Consistent Scientific & Medical Support In The Early Years
It is perhaps serendipitous that the September 2010 issue of Human Reproduction contains an extensive article documenting the early difficulties of Edwards & Steptoe in gaining reliable financial support for their research (Johnson et al 2010). The stumbling blocks to funding were not as straightforward and simple as might be imagined: namely, opposition from the Roman Catholic Church or religious fundamentalists to Edwards & Steptoe “playing God”, but rather based on a more complex mix of factors including some practical assessments as to how their research could successfully be carried out without running into snafus based on lack of oversight by the agencies in charge of administering grant monies.
The Medical Research Council, the UK’s version of the US National Institutes of Health extramural research funding program, basically had four worries, and each had some merit based on what was known at the time.
First, there was an ongoing debate within the MRC leaning towards the idea that any allocation for obstetric & gynecological research should focus on the problem of world overpopulation and contraception, rather than on infertility
Second, Edwards and Steptoe felt that they had already gathered enough information from work with other mammals, to proceed more quickly to humans, while the MRC’s referees felt that they should have extensive trials with chimps first.
Third, Edwards and Steptoe declined an offer to move into a research hospital already being funded and closely supervised by the MRC, since they preferred the greater investigative freedom, the more genial atmosphere, and apparently, the reduced level of bureaucracy and administrative report-writing of the University of Cambridge campus and facilities, even though these were not yet set up for patient care. The MRC also worried that year-to-year fluctuations in the research funding of the University might cause disruptions of the university’s portion of the budget for Edwards and Steptoe’s research, since all grants there were competitive and an annual renewal of funds might not be forthcoming if another researcher at the university had come up with a more attractive program.
Fourth, some MRC administrators apparently felt that Edwards and Steptoe had already gone out of their way to become celebrity scientists through a great deal of media exposure, and should any of the resulting babies be born with birth defects, these researchers and the MRC as a whole, would not only be easy targets for adverse publicity but possibly also legal action.
However, it proved to be exactly through the media-savvy of Edwards and Steptoe that they were eventually able to raise enough private financial support to get their program underway, and after two completely normal births, the MRC reversed itself and funded them generously.
Where Has Edwards Published Most Often? And Would Your Library Have Been Able To Accommodate Him?
Librarians like this blogger often ask themselves if they could have readily fulfilled the information needs of this Nobel Laureate, using the journals they have selected for their own library’s collections. We keep score of the adequacy of our judgment and budget partly by determining whether the assortment of journals within which this prizewinner published, would be in our holdings, since this test is one pretty clear surrogate representing a research scientist’s reading needs.
Edwards, it turns out, is typical for most biomedical scientists who attain the Nobel Prize. He has published consistently (over 30 years straight with multiple articles in journals of international importance) and prolifically (over 400 articles) and widely (over 30 different journals, many by invitation), but he also had clear favorites that reported the bulk of his research.
Leading the pack was Human Reproduction, a British-based Oxford University Press journal, which is not only one of the field’s leaders, but which was founded by Edwards in 1986. Along with its companion publication Human Reproduction Update, it accounted for 81 of his articles.
Edwards was also the founder in the year 2000 of an Elsevier electronic journal that accounted for 42 papers, Reproductive Biomedicine Online.
Three American journals along similar lines also published multiple Edwards papers. The journal currently called Reproduction (but which until year 2000 was known as the Journal of Reproduction & Fertility, and still published by the Society for Reproduction & Fertility featured 16 papers. Nine Edwards papers appeared in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, a collaboration between Elsevier and a coalition of research and professional groups headed by the American Gynecological & Obstetrics Society. Fertility & Sterility, a journal jointly published by Elsevier and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, had eight Edwards papers.
Edwards also had an excellent track record publishing in collateral disciplines. It is no surprise that given the prominent role of hormones in reproduction that he appeared 12 times in the British-based Journal of Endocrinology from the Society for Endocrinology, and given that many of his techniques were based on observing and advancing animal embryology, it is natural that one of the oldest journals with strengths in that field, the Wiley title, the Journal of Experimental Zoology, would be the home for 7 of his articles.
Where Edwards was every bit the Nobel Prizewinner was in his choice of multiscience journals, Nature from Nature Publications Group(25 papers) and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B – Biological Sciences (7 papers) and as well as The Lancet (13 papers), a leading journal of clinical investigation, from Elsevier. While all three are British-based, these are among the most influential journals of their type worldwide, and have readerships that are actually greater numerically internationally than in their home country.
How Often Was Edwards Cited And Where Was He Cited?
While counting citations would seem a straightforward exercise in this age of online databases, authors with very common surnames and initials, such as R.G. Edwards, share that same surname and initials with other scientists. In Edwards’ case there are at least one physicist and another biologist who are also R.G. Edwards, and figures for citations to their papers tend to be commingled and require sorting out. It is nonetheless safe to say that our particular Robert G. Edwards was cited almost 13,000 times in the scientific and clinical literature.
Which journals cited him most often? We ask this because it’s another good proxy measure librarians use in modeling whether or not they could service the needs of a potential patron.
The answers here are not too surprising. According to a sample taken of citations to his most famous papers, we find three journals that consistently account for double digit percentages: Fertility & Sterility, Human Reproduction (both of which were favorite outlets for Edwards) and the Biology of Reproduction ( a US-based journal published by the Society for the Study of Reproduction which tends not to cover human reproduction and as such was not as frequent an outlet for Prof. Edwards).
The next tier is occupied by the journal now known as Reproduction (another Edwards favorite) and by three journals of endocrinology, the first of which, the Journal of Endocrinology, was a preferred venue of Edwards, while the latter two, Endocrinology and the Journal of Endocrinology & Clinical Metabolism are US-based publications of the Endocrine Society.
Rounding out the top ten citers of Edwards are three journals strong in what is now called Developmental Biology, but which was historically termed Embryology. Edwards had a good track record as both an author and cited authority in the Journal of Experimental Zoology, published a few papers in the journal now known as Molecular Reproduction and Development (originally Gamete Research) a NYC Wiley title that still cites him often, and he is cited frequently by Developmental Biology, a US-based journal sponsored by the Society for Developmental Biology, and managed by Elsevier.
All in all, the vast majority of works of Robert G. Edwards and citations to those works are concentrated in relatively few scientific and clinical journals (compared to a universe with thousands of titles), and every one of them makes sense to experienced developers of library collections and budgeters for electronic access to journals in the basic life and clinical sciences.
The professional librarians of the BioMedical and Life Sciences Division of the Special Libraries Association had voted no fewer than seven of the journals discussed in this blog posting to its list of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine of the twentieth century (perhaps now better known as the DBIO 100). These include the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Developmental Biology, the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, the Journal of Experimental Zoology, The Lancet, Nature and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences. Indeed Nature was voted the Journal of the Centennial of SLA, and the three publishers most often mentioned in this blog posting, Elsevier, Wiley and Nature Publications Group, were ranked first, second and third respectively, in terms of publishing the most journals within the top 100.
Furthermore, a quick check of WorldCat for libraries still having Edwards’ 1,000+ page, 1980 treatise, Conception in the human female, a title described in a review in Nature (Short 1981) as “a treasured possession,” on their shelves shows that it is still likely to be valued in virtually all the major research institutions in not only the US but many in the rest of the world: China, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa among them.
The world has been well served by Professor Edwards and a great many biomedical and life sciences librarians around the could conceivably (pun intended) have returned the favor!
Tony Stankus FSLA email@example.com Life Sciences Librarian, Science Coordinator & Professor
University of Arkansas Libraries 233E
365 North McIlroy Avenue
Fayetteville AR 72701-4002
Edwards, Robert G. 1980. Conception in the human female. NY: Academic Press.
Johnson, M.H., S.B. Franklin, M. Cottingham, & N. Hopwood. 2010. Why the Medical Research Council refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe support for research on human conception in 1971. Human Reproduction 25 (9): 2157-2174.
Short, R.V. 2001. Beyond mechanics in human reproduction. [Review of Conception in the human female by Robert G. Edwards]. Nature 294: 784.
Stankus, Tony & Sarah E. Spiegel. 2009. The SLA DBIO 100 Poll: 100 Journals Voted by SLA’s BioMedical and Life Sciences Division as the Most Influential over the Last 100 Years. Serials Review 35 (4): 202-212.