OXFORDSHIRE BLUE PLAQUES SCHEME

Patrick STEPTOE, frs (1913–1988)

Gynaecologist, pioneer of IVF

52 West End, Witney

Patrick Steptoe was born in Witney, one of ten children, to Harry Arthur Steptoe, registrar of births, marriages and deaths, and his wife Grace Maud (née Minns). He attended Witney Grammar School and was musically talented, playing the organ at the parish church, St Mary’s. He read medicine at King’s College, London, qualifying as a doctor at St George’s Hospital in 1939.

He served in the navy 1939–1946 but when his ship was torpedoed in 1941 he was a prisoner of war in Italy for two years. On liberation he came home and in 1943 married Sheena Macleod Kennedy, who had trained at RADA. His family home from 1917 until the time of his marriage was 52 West End, Witney (shown below).

52 West End

After the war he became chief assistant in obstetrics at St George’s, then senior registrar at Whittington Hospital and after qualifying as FRCS in 1950, he was appointed consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Oldham Hospital. Here he developed a special interest in female infertility and diagnostic techniques. He was the first to develop laparoscopy as an accurate and safe procedure in Britain and published the first English book on the subject in 1967. His work in this area alone would have confirmed his standing in the history of gynaecology.

In 1968 he began to work with Robert Edwards, a young geneticist and embryologist who had done work on in vitro fertilisation in mice and other mammals. Jean Purdy, a nurse and embryologist, also made a crucial contribution to the successful outcome. Her role has often been overlooked. The collaboration resulted in the birth of the first ‘test-tube baby’, Louise Brown, on 25 July 1978. In that year he retired from the NHS and he and Edwards founded the Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge. He remained Medical Director there until his death and continued to teach, lecture, and publish scientific papers. He was made FRS in 1987 and appointed CBE in 1988 shortly before he died.

The dedicated pioneering work of Steptoe and Edwards was done with no financial support from established bodies in medicine and in the face of scepticism, opposition, and some hostility. Their achievement led to the birth of millions of babies all over the world and to many new developments, occasioning the necessity of the Warnock committee of inquiry into human fertilisation and embryology in 1982 and then to the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990. Recognition for the pair’s achievement came from the Nobel committee only in 2010 when the prize for physiology/medicine was awarded to Robert Edwards, years after Steptoe’s death. (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.)

Source:

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Herbert Reiss

The plaque was unveiled on 4 May 2019 at 52 West End, Witney by Professor Andrew Steptoe, his son, and Dr Peter Brinsden frcog, former colleague of Patrick Steptoe and successor as Director at the Bourn Hall Clinic. Among those also attending were the Chairman of West Oxfordshire District Council, the Mayor of Witney, and several gynaecologists and other medical practitioners.

Photographs taken at the unveiling ceremony

Speeches made at the unveiling ceremony:

BBC News: “IVF pioneer Patrick Steptoe gets blue plaque

Oxford Times: “Blue plaque for IVF pioneer Patrick Steptoe in West End, Witney
(added online on 9 May 2019)

Picture awaited

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

PATRICK
STEPTOE
frs

1913–1988
Gynaecologist
Pioneer of IVF
Lived here
1917–1943

Witney Town Council

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board

 

Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com