Patrick Steptoe Biography (1913-1988)


Patrick Steptoe, an English gynecologist and medical researcher, helped develop the technique of in vitro fertilization. In this process, a mature egg isremoved from the female ovary and is fertilized in a test tube. After a shortincubation period, the fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus, where it develops as in a typical pregnancy. This procedure gave women whose fallopiantubes were damaged or missing, and were thus unable to become pregnant, the hope that they too could conceive children. Steptoe and his colleague, Englishphysiologist Robert G. Edwards, received international recognition--both positive and negative--when the first so-called test tube baby was born in 1978.

Patrick Christopher Steptoe was born on June 9, 1913 in Oxfordshire, England.His father was a church organist, while his mother served as a social worker. Steptoe studied medicine at the University of London's St. George HospitalMedical School and, after being licensed in 1939, became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. His medical career, though, was interrupted by World War II. Steptoe volunteered as a naval surgeon, but he and his shipmates werecaptured by Italian forces in 1941 after their ship sank in the Battle of Crete. Initially granted special privileges in prison because he was a physician, Steptoe was placed in solitary confinement after officials detected his efforts to help fellow prisoners escape. Steptoe left the prison camp via a prisoner exchange in 1943. Following the war, Steptoe completed additional studies in obstetrics and gynecology. In 1948 he became a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and moved to Manchester to set up a private practice. In 1951 Steptoe began working at Oldham General and District Hospital in northeast England.

While at Oldham General and District Hospital, Steptoe pursued his interest in fertility problems. He developed a method of procuring human eggs from theovaries by using a laparoscope , a long thin telescope replete with fiber optics light. After inserting the device--through a small incision in the navel--into the inflated abdominal cavity, Steptoe was able to observe the reproductive tract. Eventually the laparoscope would become widely used in various types of surgery, including those associated with sterility. But, at first, Steptoe had trouble convincing others in the medical profession of the merits oflaparoscopy; observers from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists considered the technique fraught with difficulties. Five years passed before Steptoe published his first paper on laparoscopic surgery.

In 1966 Steptoe teamed with Cambridge University physiologist Robert G. Edwards to propel his work with fertility problems. Utilizing ovaries removed formedical reasons, Edwards had pioneered the fertilization of eggs outside of the body. With his laparoscope, Steptoe added the dimension of being able to secure mature eggs at the appropriate moment in the monthly cycle when fertilization would normally occur. A breakthrough for the duo came in 1968 when Edwards successfully fertilized an egg that Steptoe had extracted. Not until 1970, however, was an egg able to reach the stage of cell division--into about 100 cells--when it generally moves to the uterus. In 1972 the pair attempted the first implantation, but the embryo failed to lodge in the uterus. Indeed,none of the women with implanted embryos carried them for a full trimester.

As their work progressed and word of it leaked out, the researchers faced criticism from scientific and religious circles concerning the ethical and moralissues relating to tampering with the creation of human life. Some opponentsconsidered the duo's work akin to the scenario in Aldous Huxley's 1932 work, Brave New World, in which babies were conceived in the laboratory,cloned, and manipulated for society's use. Members of Parliament demanded aninvestigation and sources of funds were withdrawn. A Time reporter quoted Steptoe as saying, "All I am interested in is how to help women who aredenied a baby because their tubes are incapable of doing their small part."Undaunted, Steptoe and Edwards continued their work at Kershaw's Cottage Hospital in Oldham, with Steptoe financing the research by performing legal abortions. Disturbed with the criticism, Steptoe and Edwards became more secretive, which made the speculation and criticism more intense.

In 1976 Steptoe met thirty-year-old Leslie Brown, who experienced problems with her fallopian tubes. Steptoe removed a mature egg from her ovary, and Edwards fertilized the egg using her husband Gilbert's sperm. The fertilized egg--implanted after two days--thrived, and on July 25, 1978, Joy Louise Brown ,a healthy five pound twelve ounce girl was born in Oldham District and General Hospital. Even before the birth, reporters and cameramen congregated outside of the four story brick hospital, hoping for a glimpse of the expectant mother. After the birth, according to an article in Time, headlines inBritain heralded "OUR MIRACLE and BABY OF THE CENTURY."

Steptoe and Edwards were reluctant to discuss the procedures in press conferences and did not immediately publish their findings in a medical journal. InOctober of 1978, Steptoe was to receive an award from the Barren Foundation,a fertility research organization based in Chicago. The foundation suddenly cancelled the presentation because Steptoe and Edwards had not published an article on the event. As reported in a 1978 issue of Time, Steptoe called the foundation's action "the most utterly disgraceful exhibition of bad manners I've come across in the scientific world." In addition, rumors that thepair had sold their story to the tabloid the National Enquirer fora six figure amount were rampant. Steptoe declared that he rejected such offers and did not make any money on the highly publicized birth. Despite the furor, the New York Fertility Society subsequently presented Steptoe with an achievement award.

As to the claim of publishing, Steptoe answered that most scientists do not publish until several months after data is in and research complete. The procedures were fully presented at the January 26, 1979 meeting of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and at the conference of the American Fertility Society in San Francisco. Steptoe reported that with modified techniques, ten percent of the in vitro fertilization attempts could succeed. He further predicted that there could one day be a fifty percent success rate forthe procedure.

In the aftermath of the first successful test tube baby, Steptoe received thousands of letters from couples seeking help in conception. He retired from the British National Health Service and constructed a new clinic near Cambridge. For their efforts, Steptoe and Edwards were both named Commanders of the British Empire, and in 1987 Steptoe was honored with fellowship in the Royal Society. Steptoe and his wife, a former actress, had one son and one daughter.His interests outside of medicine included piano and organ, cricket, plays, and opera. Steptoe died of cancer on March 21, 1988, in Canterbury. Yet, sincethe birth of baby Brown and the pioneering techniques of Steptoe, couples with various physiological problems have had children in clinics throughout theworld.

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