The Matilda Effect and Jean Purdy

There are well-known instances of women in science being apparently overlooked for a Nobel Prize: Jocelyn Bell Burnell, springs to mind, as do Lisa Meitner and Rosalind Franklin (if one ignores the inconvenient fact that she was dead by the time of the award). These are names that could readily be associated with the Matilda Effect, coined by Margaret Rossiter and summarised on Wikipedia as

‘bias against acknowledging the achievements of those women scientists whose work is attributed to their male colleagues.’

Every day women continue to be up against these sorts of bias in matters small and large: whose name goes first on a paper, who gets to attend a conference to present work (too often it’s not the woman who actually spearheaded it) – or who gets recognition from prize-giving committees way beyond the one sitting in Stockholm.

In the case of Rosalind Franklin, not only did she miss out on the Nobel Prize, she was comprehensively damned as of little interest by Jim Watson in his memoir The Double Helix. He says, of a talk she gave,

‘There was not a trace of warmth or frivolity in her words. And yet I could not regard her as totally uninteresting. Momentarily I wondered how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair.’

Repellent, utterly repellent as a description of a professional whose work he was in essence about to poach. A little later chronologically, when an early discussion of the possibility of a helical structure was being discussed by Watson and Francis Crick, with Franklin and her lab head Maurice Wilkins+, Watson gets even crosser when he discovers that actually she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to physical chemistry.

‘Most annoyingly, her objections were not mere perversity: at this stage the embarrassing fact came out that my recollection of the water content of Rosy’s DNA samples could not be right.’

Damning her with the diminutive name of Rosy (by which she was never known), he found he didn’t actually know what he was talking about; she did.

Much has been written about Franklin’s role in uncovering the structure of DNA, these vignettes are merely meant to illustrate one familiar example of the Matilda Effect. Let me now introduce a much less well-known name who also suffered its consequences of this effect, someone whose contributions to scientific progress have not yet been properly resurrected to give the woman her due: Jean Purdy. As Robert Edwardspapers opened by the Churchill College Archives* this week reveal, she played a key role in developing IVF, leading to the birth of Louise Brown and subsequently millions more ‘test-tube babies’ Whereas Watson sought to denigrate Franklin, absolutely the opposite is true of Edwards who, along with Purdy and Patrick Steptoe, were the driving force behind moving from a glimmer of an idea to a live birth.

Edwards was a pioneer in all senses, a man who had to fight against a funding system that would not support his work, in part because of ethical concerns but also, as Martin Johnson one of his former PhD students writes Edwards was regarded as

‘that charlatan, who worked on stuff ‘down there’ and spoke to the press’.

(Interestingly, this article also indicates how Jim Watson featured here claiming that ‘monsters would be born’ by these novel procedures.) A lack of support from the funders may be a condition familiar to many scientists, but few will emulate Edwards’ success both in the ‘impact’ of their work on hundreds of thousands if not millions of families around the world at a time when impact had not entered the funders’ lexicon, as well as the award of a Nobel Prize (in Physiology or Medicine in 2010). This work was carried out at the private clinic at Bourn Hall because (I believe) NHS hospitals would not give him space.  He was regarded as too much of a maverick and his approaches too dodgy but, despite these hurdles, had the strength of character and support to keep going until he could prove his ideas correct.

He was in no doubt that Purdy, a trained nurse who worked with him as a researcher, was instrumental in the ultimate success of the technique. When Oldham (the long term gynaecologist collaborator Steptoe was based in Oldham) wanted to commemorate the success of the IVF project with a plaque in the town, Edwards argued that Purdy’s name should appear on the plaque alongside the two more famous names.  He wanted fair recognition for Purdy who, he says,

‘travelled to Oldham with me for 10 years and contributed as much as I did to the project. Indeed, I regard her as an equal contributor to Patrick Steptoe and myself.’

His support for her had no effect, despite being repeated several times. Oldham Health Authority proceeded with the plaque merely identifying Steptoe and Edwards.

That the Nobel Committee did not include Purdy (or Steptoe) in the 2010 prize is less surprising than Oldham’s response given Stockholm’s rules about posthumous awards: Purdy died, like Franklin, tragically young of cancer in 1985 and Steptoe in 1988. But why does an organisation in which no personality clash or anything similar could have been at play, decide to ignore the wishes of the very person being honoured? Why should a woman who had played a crucial role in an extraordinarily important discovery be wantonly disregarded? Presumably some people back in 1981 could not conceive of a young woman as anything other than a ‘safe pair of hands’ or a ‘good technician’ who couldn’t have been a major player in making the procedure succeed. It would be nice to think something similar could not happen today, but there are too many anecdotes circulating to convince me that women are not regularly being unfairly overlooked in favour of male colleagues.

In Purdy’s case there is a slightly happy ending (if you consider plaques a measure of success). Although in 2013 a plaque had been placed at Bourn Hall omitting Purdy’s name, two years later Andrew Steptoe, son of Patrick Steptoe unveiled a plaque acknowledging the three people involved in developing IVF. Three years later in 2018 when celebrating 40 years of IVF,  Bourn Hall unveiled a memorial to Jean Purdy, the

“world’s first IVF nurse and embryologist. Co-founder of Bourn Hall Clinic.”

*Thanks to Churchill College archivist Madelin Evans who drew this story to my attention.

+ Not Maurice Wilkes as I first wrote!


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