Dr. Patrick Steptoe, the gynecologist who developed the test-tube technique that made parenthood possible for thousands of otherwise infertile couples, has died at age 74.
His family announced Tuesday that Steptoe had been suffering from cancer and died Monday night in the Chaucer Hospital in Canterbury, 62 miles southeast of London.
Steptoe continued working until recently despite deteriorating health, his longtime partner, physiologist Robert Edwards, said.
"It is a very great loss to Bourn Hall (their clinic) and to me personally," said Edwards who did some of the research that enabled Steptoe to deliver the world's first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978. "In the last three years he was working under considerable difficulties, but carried on," Edwards added.
Medical Shock Waves
The announcement of the birth of the healthy baby from an embryo fertilized outside the womb of Lesley Brown caused shock waves that still reverberate.
The technique, known as in vitro fertilization, has since been used in clinics around the world. (Steptoe and Edwards celebrated the birth of their 1,000th in vitro fertilization last Dec. 26.)
Louise Brown's birth was hailed as a miracle by some and criticized as a wrong use of scientific techniques by others, including the Roman Catholic Church.
But Steptoe avoided the controversy.
"I am not a wizard or a Frankenstein," he said. "All I want to do is to help women whose child-producing mechanism is slightly faulty."
Louise, now a schoolgirl, was conceived after an egg was removed from her mother and fertilized outside the womb with the sperm of her husband, truck driver John Brown. Returned to the womb, the embryo developed a normal pregnancy and Louise Brown was delivered by Caesarean section weighing 5 pounds, 12 ounces.
Told of Steptoe's death on Tuesday, Louise's father said he and his wife "are forever in his debt."
"There is no way we, or any other couples Mr. Steptoe helped, can possibly repay him for what he has given them," Brown said.
In vitro fertilization was devised mainly to relieve infertility in women with blocked or damaged Fallopian tubes.
Under the procedure, ova are removed from the woman and fertilized with the prospective father's sperm in a laboratory dish. Resulting embryos--often more than one--then are implanted in the womb.
Some embryos now are even frozen for later use.
In his work Steptoe pioneered the technique of laparoscopy--a procedure of inserting into the abdomen a tube with a "cold" fiber optic light, which has been used to "see" what may be wrong with infertile women.
In their early years of research in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Steptoe and Edwards were ostracized by much of the medical establishment and once turned down for a Medical Research Council grant. But that changed after Louise's birth. Last year, Steptoe and Edwards were made Commanders of the British Empire, and Steptoe also received one of Britain's highest academic honors and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Steptoe was to have received the CBE from Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, just hours after his death.
Inspired by Mother
Steptoe whose interest in gynecology he attributed to his mother--a woman he described as "very conscious of the rights of women"--was the fifth in a family of eight children. He became a doctor in 1939 and immediately went into World War II service as a Royal Navy surgeon. He was a prisoner of war in Italy from 1941 to 1943.
He worked as an obstetrician in state hospitals, moving in 1951 to Oldham, a grimy northern England city where in the fall of 1967 he teamed up with Edwards, a Cambridge University physiologist.
They formed both a friendship and a research laboratory there.
Steptoe, silver-haired, bespectacled and always impeccably dressed, had a formidable reputation for hard work.
Louise Brown was conceived and born at no cost to her parents under Britain's state-funded National Health Service. But after an argument with the government Health Department about the high cost of his work, Steptoe quit the service in 1978.
He and Edwards set up their clinic at Bourn Hall, an 11th-Century castle near Cambridge, in 1980.
Steptoe, an accomplished pianist and organist, is survived by his wife, Sheena and a son and daughter.