In 1971, Cambridge physiologist Robert Edwards and Oldham gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe applied to the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) for long-term support for a programme of scientific and clinical 'Studies on Human Reproduction'. The MRC, then the major British funder of medical research, declined support on ethical grounds and maintained this policy throughout the 1970s. The work continued with private money, leading to the birth of Louise Brown in 1978 and transforming research in obstetrics, gynaecology and human embryology. The MRC decision has been criticized, but the processes by which it was reached have yet to be explored. Here, we present an archive-based analysis of the MRC decision. We find evidence of initial support for Edwards and Steptoe, including from within the MRC, which invited the applicants to join its new directly funded Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park Hospital. They declined the offer, preferring long-term grant support at the University of Cambridge, and so exposed the project to competitive funding mode. Referees and the Clinical Research Board saw the institutional set-up in Cambridge as problematic with respect to clinical facilities and patient management; gave infertility a low priority compared with population control; assessed interventions as purely experimental rather than potential treatments, and so set the bar for safety high; feared fatal abnormalities and so wanted primate experiments first; and were antagonized by the applicants' high media profile. The rejection set MRC policy on IVF for 8 years, until, after the birth of just two healthy babies, the Council rapidly converted to enthusiastic support. This analysis enriches our view of a crucial decision, highlights institutional opportunities and constraints and provides insight into the then dominant attitudes of reproductive scientists and clinicians towards human conception research
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