Patrick Christopher Steptoe

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Patrick Christopher Steptoe


British Obstetrician, Gynecologist, and Reproductive Biologist

Patrick Steptoe pioneered the technique of human in vitro fertilization for the treatment of infertility. The technique involves removing eggs from the ovary of a woman, fertilizing them with sperm in the laboratory, and returning the developing embryo to the mother's uterus, where pregnancy proceeds. The process, first done successfully in 1978, sparked widespread ethical debates that continue today.

Steptoe was born in Whitney, Oxfordshire, in England. He studied medicine at King's College, London, and St. George's Hospital, where he qualified as a medical doctor in 1939. Steptoe entered the Royal Navy in 1939, serving as a surgeon during World War II. He was a prisoner of war in Italy from 1941 to 1943. After the demobilization in 1946, Steptoe began his practice of obstetrics and gynecology. In 1951 he moved to the northern city of Oldham, where he became senior obstetrician and gynecologist at the state Oldham Hospitals.

In the early 1950s Steptoe noted the excessive number of laparotomies (abdominal surgeries) performed on women who were being treated for infertility. He searched for a simpler method of visualizing internal female reproductive organs. Steptoe accomplished this task by pioneering the technique of laparoscopy. In this procedure, a thin, flexible tube tipped with a fiber optic light is inserted into the abdomen, allowing the visualization of blocked Fallopian tubes and other causes of infertility. Steptoe spent nearly a decade researching and perfecting laparoscopic techniques, including laparoscopic sterilization.

In 1967 Steptoe teamed up with Robert Edwards, a Cambridge University physiologist, to continue infertility research. Steptoe devised a way to retrieve eggs from the ovaries of women who had been made infertile by blocked Fallopian tubes. Edwards's research concentrated on fertilizing the retrieved eggs outside of the body with sperm in laboratory conditions that would allow the fertilized egg to grow into a zygote. In 1968 Edwards achieved the first such successful fertilization and, by 1970, normal zygote growth to the sixteen-cell stage was achieved.

In 1972 Steptoe first returned a fertilized and dividing egg to the uterus of a woman from whom the egg had been removed. Implantation, however, was not successful. Steptoe and Edwards endured the scientific skepticism of their peers as well as a difficult relationship with the mass media. Finally, in 1977 successful implantation and pregnancy was achieved through in vitro fertilization. The mother, Leslie Brown, was unable to conceive naturally because of blocked Fallopian tubes. On July 25, 1978, at Oldham Hospital, Brown gave birth to a healthy baby girl, named Louise. The media reported the birth of the world's first "test-tube baby" with a zeal not seen since man first landed on the moon.

The event inspired debate as well as praise. Many infertile women volunteered for further research, hailing in vitro fertilization as the miraculous answer to their quest for motherhood. Others, including the Roman Catholic Church, saw in vitro fertilization as a morally questionable use of scientific techniques. This debate continues today as improved technologies allow for the storage of fertilized zygotes for extended periods of time.

Steptoe and Edwards were initially reluctant to publish their research. With the birth of baby Louise Brown, however, skepticism faded and fellow scientists eagerly received Steptoe and Edwards's work, which they presented in 1979. Advances in what has become known as ART—assisted reproductive technologies—have enabled couples with various fertility problems to have children through in vitro fertilization. Today, over 300 clinics in the United States alone are dedicated to the practice of ART, with in vitro fertilization serving as the primary means of achieving pregnancy for infertile couples. Worldwide, an estimated 500,000 babies have been born using in vitro fertilization technologies.

Steptoe, along with Edwards, founded the Bourn Hall Clinic in 1980, which serves as a research and treatment center for infertility. Together, they authored their scientific memoirs, A Matter of Life, which was published in 1981. Steptoe received knighthood in 1987 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died of cancer in 1988 and was survived by his wife, son, and daughter.


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Patrick Christopher Steptoe

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