Robert G. Edwards, who opened a new era in medicine when he joined a colleague in developing in vitro fertilization, enabling millions of infertile couples to bring children into the world and women to have babies even in menopause, died Wednesday at his home near Cambridge, England. Mr. Edwards, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his breakthrough, was 87.
The University of Cambridge, where he worked for many years, announced his death. Mr. Edwards was known to have dementia and was said to have been unable to appreciate the tribute when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2010.
A flamboyant and colorful physiologist who courted the press and vigorously debated his critics, Mr. Edwards and his colleague in the effort, gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, essentially changed the rules for how people can come into the world. Conception was now possible outside the body -- in a petri dish.
The technique has resulted in the births of 5 million babies, according to the International Committee Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies, an independent nonprofit group.
Yet, like so many pioneers of science, the two men achieved what they did in the face of a skeptical establishment and choruses of critics, some of whom found the idea of a "test tube baby" morally repugnant. Denied government support, the men resorted to private financing. And they did their work in virtual seclusion, in a tiny windowless laboratory at a small, out-of-the-way English hospital outside Manchester.
It was there, after outwitting a crowd of reporters, that they delivered their -- and the world's -- first IVF baby, Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978. Her parents, John and Lesley Brown, had tried for nine years to have a child -- a period that virtually coincided with Mr. Edwards' research.
He first had the idea for in vitro fertilization in the 1950s, and after beginning his research in earnest in the late 1960s, he stayed with it for nine years, through trial and error, disappointment and triumph.
Several times a week he drove three to four hours from his academic office in Cambridge to pursue the work at Oldham General Hospital (now the Royal Oldham Hospital). It was there that he and Steptoe finally succeeded in fertilizing an egg, growing it briefly in a petri dish, and transferring it to a woman's uterus to produce a baby. Steptoe, who died in 1988, did not receive a share of the Nobel because the prizes are not awarded posthumously.
Mr. Edwards' motivation -- his passion, in fact -- was not fame or fortune but rather helping infertile women, said Barry Bavister, a retired reproductive biologist who worked with Mr. Edwards.
"He believed with all his heart that it was the right thing to do," Mr. Bavister said.
During the frustrating years before that first IVF birth, Mr. Edwards was undaunted by critics who said he might be creating babies with birth defects -- undaunted even by the qualms of some of his own graduate students. One, Martin Johnson, wrote that he and a fellow graduate student, Richard Gardner, "were very unsure about whether what Bob was doing was appropriate, and we didn't want to get too involved in it."
In 1971, Mr. Edwards' application for research support from the British government was turned down, in part because a committee reviewing his application thought it would be more prudent to perfect the method in nonhuman primates before jumping to humans.
And then there was Mr. Edwards' personality. Committee members wrote that they were uncomfortable with his "tendency to seek publicity in the press, television and so on."
Finally, the committee thought that the hospital where Mr. Edwards and Steptoe worked was insufficiently equipped. The two men resorted to obtaining private funds and continued their work.
In a paper published a decade ago in Nature Medicine, Mr. Edwards explained that he first got the idea for human IVF when he was a Ph.D. student at Edinburgh University in the 1950s. He was working with mouse embryos and testing hormone preparations that induced female mice to ovulate. Years later, he asked gynecologists if they would give him ovarian tissue that they had removed from patients for other reasons. Mr. Edwards sought to induce the eggs in the tissue to mature. Then he would fertilize them and transfer them in infertile women to produce pregnancies.
"Some gynecologists approached about this project candidly responded that they thought the idea preposterous," Mr. Edwards wrote. But one, Molly Rose, who had delivered two of Mr. Edwards' five daughters, said she would do it.
The immature eggs, though, would not mature. Mr. Edwards had assumed it took 12 hours for the process; that was what another research group had said. He finally succeeded, he wrote in 1972, when, "after two disappointing years," he let the eggs grow for as long as 25 hours. Then, he wrote, "a joy unbounding," the eggs matured. What followed, however, was failure after failure to achieve the steps needed for an actual pregnancy.
He finally succeeded with Lesley Brown, who died last year at age 64. The night she was to give birth to the world's first IVF baby, the press descended en masse on the small hospital on Oldham. Mr. Edwards left the hospital that afternoon and told reporters that nothing was happening yet and that they could go home. He and Steptoe sneaked in the back entrance that night, and Steptoe delivered the baby by cesarean section.
After the birth of Louise Brown, Mr. Edwards was triumphant. He and Steptoe founded an IVF center, Bourn Hall in Cambridge, where he served as research director.
In 2011, Mr. Edwards was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II "for services to human reproductive biology."
Robert Geoffrey Edwards was born into a working-class family in Bately, Yorkshire, on Sept. 27, 1925. He joined the British military during World War II, then studied biology at the University of Wales in Bangor. He received a Ph.D. in physiology in 1955 from Edinburgh University in Scotland.