The New York Times announced today that Robert Edwards has been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine due to his work in pioneering in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Patrick Steptoe, who worked with him on creating IVF (and was one of the pioneers of laparoscopic surgery), has since died and therefore was not included in the award.
It seems like every year there is a "why now" question asked about a recipient of the prize. Last year, it was President Obama's Nobel Prize for Peace, a huge statement made by the Nobel committee.
This year, it's Edwards -- with the honor coming long after the creation of IVF. Four million children have been born due to the procedure, and the first IVF children have since had children of their own. It's coming 22 years after Steptoe's death, and frankly, with Edwards at 85 years old, the committee could have missed the opportunity to honor a man who has created options that benefit infertile men and women.
Is it because IVF was extremely controversial when it was first created, and still continues to be so to this day -- kicking off ethical debates such as using frozen embryos for research purposes or contributing to the idea of when life begins?
The Times also muses on why it took so long to award Edwards the prize:
The deliberations of the prize-giving committee at the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden are confidential, and it is unclear why it took so long to acknowledge Dr. Edwards's achievement. The committee routinely ignores the stipulation in Alfred Nobel’s will that the prize should be awarded for a discovery made the preceding year, because it takes longer than that to evaluate most scientific claims, but delays of 30 years or more are unusual. The Lasker Foundation in New York, whose jurors often anticipate the Nobel Prize committee, awarded Dr. Edwards its prize in 2001.
Interestingly, Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist who cloned the first sheep, also hasn't received a Nobel Prize for his work, despite the fact that he won the Shaw Prize (sometimes called the Nobel Prize of the East) in 2008.
Sometimes, the opposite occurs -- the prize recipient is still controversial, or the work is (or should be) still in question. Fritz Haber won the prize in 1918 for his work in chemistry in synthesizing ammonia, which led to advances in explosives. He's also known for his work in chemical warfare, and he contributed to the creation of poisonous gases used in war. While his discovery obviously had good effects (it is used in fertilizers), it also contributed to many human deaths.
Antonio Moniz was honored for his work in pioneering lobotomies, a surgery that increased in prevalence after he was awarded the prize in 1949. Soon after Moniz received the prize, new oral therapies, which did not sever the brain, were found. On one hand, prior to those advances, lobotomy was the only option for treatment. On the other hand, it was a surgery that some say was over used without regard for the larger picture.
And if you ever wondered why some people believe cancer is contagious, you can look to the 1926 Nobel Prize in Medicine winner, Johannes Fibiger, who won the award for discovering the Spiroptera carcinoma, a parasite he claimed caused cancer. Though his research was proved false by other scientists (tumors grew, but it wasn't the parasite that was carcinogenic), Fibiger kept his prize and the honor continued to influence how people viewed cancer.
Which is a long way of saying that the Nobel Prize does matter. It changes the way the general public views an advancement in medicine, with the idea trickling down from the scientific community into the world of the lay person. The committee's acceptance of an idea, the declaration that it should be honored, carries weight. And it will be interesting to watch public opinion for the next few years following Edward's prize. Will IVF become less controversial? Or will it still continue to garner headlines daily?
More from health