'Forgotten' nurses recognised for their key role in test tube baby birth - 40 years on

L-R Sister Muriel Harris and nurse Jean Purdy
L-R Sister Muriel Harris and nurse Jean Purdy have been recognised for their key role in pioneering the world's first test tube baby. Credit: John Fallows/Wikimedia Commons

Two 'forgotten' nurses who played a key role in pioneering the world's first test tube baby, in Greater Manchester, have finally been recognised more than 40 years on.

Louise Brown was the world's first in-vitro fertilised baby and was born at The Royal Oldham Hospital on July 25, 1978.

While the pioneers of IVF in Oldham are most widely known as scientist Robert Edwards and medic Patrick Steptoe, two female nurses also played crucial roles.

Now a commemorative plaque has been unveiled at The Royal Oldham Hospital to honour the work of Jean Purdy and Sister Muriel Harris.

Louise Brown's birth in 1978 would mark the start of a medical revolution which would transform lives.

Archive letters were uncovered in 2019 which revealed their names had been omitted, with the wording of the plaque authorised by the Oldham Area Health Authority only recognising the two male doctors, and 'supporting staff', despite protestations from Dr Edwards.

Nurse embryologist Ms Purdy had worked with Dr Edwards for 10 years, and it was she who first saw that the fertilised egg, which was to become Louise Brown, was dividing to make new cells.

She died in 1985 aged just 39, without ever seeing her contributions to the scientific breakthrough formally recognised.

(Left to right) gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, embryologist Jean Purdy and physiologist Robert Edwards at the birth of Louise Brown. Credit: PA


Sister Harris, who died in 2007 aged 84, worked with Dr Edwards and Mr Steptoe to establish the operating theatre facilities at both The Royal Oldham and Dr Kershaw's Cottage Hospital, without which 'IVF could not have succeeded'.

Oldham's cabinet member for health, councillor Zahid Chauhan had petitioned The Royal Oldham Hospital to commit to a new memorial to the women after he found that three plaques still on display did not mention their contributions.

Other health bosses, including Dame Donna Kinnair, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, and Ruth May, England's chief nursing officer, had also publicly backed the proposal.

Now a new commemorative plaque has been unveiled at the hospital in the week of International Women's Day.

Cllr Zahid Chauhan by the plaque at the Royal Oldham Hospital Credit: Oldham Council

Coun Chauhan told the Local Democracy Reporting Service it had felt an 'historic moment'.

"This was an injustice for those women who made such a vital contribution and it was our responsIbility to try and remember them properly," he said.

"My 13-year-old daughter said that every time she will see that plaque she will remember that her dad stood up for women who were ignored. On a personal level that meant a lot to me.

"But it's also setting an example that we have a collective responsibility to speak up against injustice and try to do everything possible to rectify it."

The new plaque at the Royal Oldham Hospital Credit: Oldham Council