Bob Edwards, Father of Five Million

The Nobel laureate died yesterday at age 87, feted as the technological father of millions of babies around the world -- the oldest of whom is 36-year-old Louise Brown. He is responsible for in vitro fertilization, which in the 1970s was as controversial as embryonic stem cell research is today.
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Edwards in 1988 with two of his test-tube babies. [Alastair Grant/AP]

When I heard of the passing of Bob Edwards, I remembered our time together at his farm just outside of Cambridge, England. Over the course of two days, he talked to me of nature's limits, and the role of humanity in repairing and finishing its unfinished work. All around us, a three ring circus was unfolding that Edwards and his breakthroughs had set in motion.

Additional background notes on his work appear at the end of this piece.

***

When I looked out from the top floor of the Willard Hotel at 6 a.m., a few taxis were moving slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue like blood cells through a vein. It was a fall morning in 2004, the chandeliers were blazing in the Crystal Room, and tables had been set up for an erudite bunch of guests who would soon be arriving.

I was here early to watch as the room filled up with an assortment of political pundits, lobbyists, scientific leaders, and staffers from a range of House and Senate subcommittees.

I'd returned recently from my visit with you at Cambridge, and could not dismiss the thought that the current fray would not be unfolding if not for your work with embryonic cells.

The circus could not have been set on a better stage.

Nature isn't so damned impressive, you insisted.

You would have gotten a kick out of the place. The elegant Willard -- which, in civil war times, Nathaniel Hawthorne had described as "more the center of Washington than the White House" -- was not unaccustomed to the most impolite of battles. Within its walls, many social and political gales (and wails) had been unleashed over the decades.

It was here that president-elect Abraham Lincoln had been smuggled in 1861, hiding from assassination threats. Julia Ward Howe wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic in her room here, and President Ulysses S. Grant coined the term "lobbyist" here, for all the pesky, influence-mongers who interrupted his end-of-day brandy and cigar in the Willard lobby.

It was Elias Zerhouni's turn. President Bush's health tsar had arrived for a sparring match with the angels and arch-angels of stem cell research.

By 8:00 a.m. the room was simmering.

I'd just come back from visiting embryonic stem cell labs around the world. I'd been decontaminated in an air shower with the fraudulent Dr. Hwang at his Seoul lab; got a glimpse into Teru Wakayama's dream experiment in Kobe, Japan; saw future Nobel laureate Shin-Ichi Nishikawa's gene analysis of embryonic stem cells; viewed Noce's mind-boggling results forging tail-less sperm cells from stem cells in a lab dish in Tokyo; saw rats with Alzheimer's being treated with stem cells at the Lund, Sweden lab of Patrik Brundin; and sat with Henrik Semb, who'd single-handedly generated most of the Bush administration's approved cell lines. I'd visited the Vatican in Rome, and pored over the theological texts concerning the "gospel of life."

We'd talked about these troublemakers, and your eyes sparkled as I told you what I'd managed to see. In Stockholm, at the Karolinska Institute, Jonas Frisen was devising a way to measure the age of stem cells in the body with carbon dating -- to determine the real effectiveness of adult stem cells. In Berlin, at an out-of-the-way beer garden, I'd had a rendezvous with a Chinese stem cell scientist who'd recently fled an unscrupulous but high-profile lab in Beijing, and was being hounded by Communist party leaders. I'd also witnessed the astounding birth of an endangered animal cloned from a creature that had been dead for more than 20 years. I'd interviewed patients, including Christopher Reeve at his home on a horse farm in New York a few months before he died; a Chicago man in his 40s dying of ALS ("Lou Gehrig's disease") who'd traveled to Kiev and paid tens of thousands of dollars desperate for any kind of stem cell treatment; and a Boston policeman, Fran Ford, who was looking to embryonic stem cell scientists save his son's precious eyesight. At Cambridge, I got the low-down from former USCF researcher Roger Pederson on how things were going for him as an ex-pat at Tony Blair's new stem cell center.

And I was still thinking about you, now, as Senator Brownback, Republican from Kansas, came strolling down the Willard Hotel's Peacock Alley. Brownback back then had sponsored the bill known as S. 245, which would make all forms of human embryonic stem cell cloning illegal and even criminalize American patients who sought therapeutic treatments based on this technology abroad.

Senator Dick Durbin, ducking behind one of the blue marble pillars, took his seat. He was cosponsor of a rival bill.

Taking his seat among the pundits was David Prentice, the senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council's Center for Human Life and Bioethics, an opponent of embryonic stem cell research.

Durbin poured himself a glass of water from the tall silver pitcher, and took a long drink.

Two seats next to him, William Hurlbut, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics from Stanford University, was going on about a recent trip to the Vatican. It seemed to be a pretty popular place for U.S. politicians lately.

Arguments raged.

All over the world, parents who had undergone fertility treatments and had ended up with more embryos than they needed were getting letters from IVF clinics. What did they want to do with their leftover frozen embryos? Hundreds of thousands of them created thanks to you.

Presented by

Wendy Goldman Rohm is an author, editor, and literary agent whose work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Chicago TribuneThe Los Angeles TimesWired, and Vogue. She conducts professional writing workshops around the world and is currently working on her fifth book.

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