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Father of IVF and Nobel Prize Winner Robert Edwards Dies at 87

Update Date: Apr 10, 2013 08:55 PM EDT

Nobel Prize winner Sir Robert Edwards, a "co-pioneer" of the in vitro fertilization technique in the 1950's, died Wednesday in his sleep after a long illness, the University of Cambridge said. He was 87.

Edwards, who began working on fertilization techniques in the 1950s, concluded that eggs fertilized by sperm in a laboratory could be a viable solution to human infertility issues. He is the man responsible for the birth of the first test tube baby Louise Brown in 1978 and has till now given the joy of parenthood to over five million families.

"It is with deep sadness that the family announces that Robert Edwards, Nobel prizewinner, scientist and co-pioneer of IVF, passed away after a long illness," the University of Cambridge said Wednesday in a statement.

Edwards said he was motivated in his work by a desire to help families. "Nothing is more special than a child," he was quoted by his clinic as saying when he won his Nobel prize.

Despite his driving force of wanting to help families, he did receive criticism from religious leaders and other opponents who called conception outside the womb abnormal. The Vatican has been extremely vocal in its objection to IVF.

Edwards remained firm in the face of criticism. "Ethicists decried us, forecasting abnormal babies, misleading the infertile and misrepresenting our work as really acquiring human embryos for research," he wrote in the biomedical research journal Nature Medicine in 2001.

"Bob Edwards is one of our greatest scientists," said Mike Macnamee, chief executive of Bourn Hall, the IVF clinic that Edwards founded with Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecological surgeon.

"His inspirational work in the early 1960s led to a breakthrough that has enhanced the lives of millions of people worldwide. It was a privilege to work with him and his passing is a great loss to us all."

Edwards leaves behind his wife, Ruth, and five daughters and 11 grandchildren.

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