Sometimes life's sweetest things take the longest to achieve. For me, becoming a mother involved years of clinical help and round after round of in vitro fertilization. Yesterday, at the age of 85 and 32 years after the birth of Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, Dr. Robert Edwards, who with his colleague Patrick Steptoe pioneered in vitro fertilization, was finally awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
But even though Edwards had to wait such a long time for this recognition, I wish he and Steptoe, who died in 1988, could know that, like Elijah's cup of wine at the Seder table, I've set aside a slice of birthday cake for them at each of my three daughters' birthday celebrations. I don't pretend that I see ghostly bite marks, but I want always to remember that if not for them, if not for their twenty years of work to achieve that first birth, the first of more than four million, there'd be no cake. So a sacrificial slice of banana cake with chocolate butter cream for Edwards and a scoop of vanilla ice cream atop it for Steptoe seems like the least this thankful mama (although neither Swedish nor part of a prestigious committee) can do.
In reading about today's award, I wanted specifics, wondering what took so long. Did somebody hypothesize that the human being conceived in a test-tube would, at age 32, develop strange characteristics or a debilitating illness? Then seeing photos of a beaming Louise Brown holding her own (naturally conceived) son, had they concluded that IVF seems not just safe, but prize worthy? I mean, Brown is the picture of health and happiness. She beams! Had the committee considered Edwards and Steptoe on and off over the past 32 years but dismissed their medical contribution as either too flimsy or too controversial for formal recognition? Did they worry that the ability to create embryos in a dish and human beings involving a potential multitude of genetic contributors too loaded and potentially dangerous to celebrate? Doesn't the current Nobel committee know that the prize is named after a chemist who developed dynamite?
So this is what I found. The prize was awarded specifically "for the development of in vitro fertilization." It shies away from mentioning stem cell research which, of course, the ability to create embryos in a dish fuels (but, again, another piece of cake a la mode goes out to that incredible scientific development).
And in the medicine prize committee's own words, "(Edwards') achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity, including more than 10 percent of all couples worldwide. Approximately 4 million individuals have been born thanks to IVF. Today, Robert Edwards' vision is a reality and brings joy to infertile people all over the world."
As for Edwards having to wait so long for recognition, Francoise Shenfield, an infertility expert with the European Society of Human Reproduction, said, "It's a shame Britain hasn't recognized him in a more explicit fashion." I mean, if Elton John got a knighthood, and despite the fact my kids loved, loved, loved The Lion King, shouldn't the guy who made their lives possible get one, too?
In an interview with The Times of London in 2003, Edwards said he was "not terribly bothered" about not getting a knighthood.
"I'm a very left-wing socialist and I won't shed a tear. But if you can organize a Nobel, please go ahead," he joked.
So, today, Edwards' joke became a reality, even if his contribution altered the natural course of the circle of life. Take that, Sir Elton John!