Dear Jean

Dear Jean

I couldn’t leave my students to say farewell. Our friends told me it was one of those miserable days before the daffodils bloom along the Cambridge College Backs: Scots would call it a “dreich day”. Pronounced correctly, everyone knows exactly what they mean.

So much water passed under the bridge in thirty years. You’d be amazed to see my hair now—but better a silver noggin than a shiny nut.

As summer grows old, I’m feeling sentimental and looking back on salad days again. I never forgot the first time you showed me a human embryo. Alive! Gazing down the microscope I needed your help to see the tiny ball of cells floating in a pink ocean of culture fluid. You hovered behind me, probably worried that a green student might spill the precious mite you had just created by in vitro fertilization. It took five more years of struggling research until your breakthrough with the embryo that became Louise Brown. Now there are millions like her.

Jean and Bob arriving at Gare du Nord, Paris, for a conference
Jean and Bob arriving at Gare du Nord, Paris, for a conference

Did you ever mind standing in Bob Edwards’ shadow? He was generous with compliments, saluting you as the third pioneer of IVF beside Patrick Steptoe and himself, but as the assistant to a famous scientist and a gynecologist (and being female) you didn’t have much visibility with biographers and the press. The longer you are away the deeper the mystery of your part in the program, and now that both men are gone there is no one left to tell the full story.

Why did you quit nursing? Why did you switch to a lab job for which you were hardly qualified? Of course it wasn’t any ordinary job. Bob’s goal was no less than to forge a medical revolution, and Patrick was aiming to help infertile couples that his profession had virtually abandoned because it had nothing to offer them. Your work was accused of being unethical, “playing God,” and was excoriated in the press, by doctors, and from church pulpits. I wondered what your friends said, what your family thought, and how you coped with it all.

All those struggles were quickly forgotten when it all came right, but then you couldn’t foresee the triumph at the end of the tunnel of nearly ten disappointing years of trials, working long hours and often away from home until Louise was born. Besides the immense challenge of nurturing embryos in the dish and the thicket of critics, you had to glue two different personalities together, for if Bob and Patrick had parted nothing would have been achieved.

I guess you seasoned the setbacks and stresses with humor. I remember you used to laugh when we goofed in the lab, and when you struggled to spell the name of the Philadelphia biologist, Beatrice Mintz, you posted attempts on your bulletin board. It’s funny how trivial things get stuck in my memory. Visitors would remark about your “humor station” before Mintzstepping past to Bob’s office for some heavy scientific discussion. Once when I was sitting in his office soon after Louise was born and you were setting up Bourn Hall Clinic I asked him how he managed to publish his huge tome, said to be the bible of reproductive medicine. He nodded towards your desk, which you leant over, cracking a cheeky smile that was so endearing.

I always knew you had a sterner spirit under the sunny exterior. One day during the public hullaballoo about banning the South African national sports teams from international tournaments I saw you in a heated debate with an overseas visitor who was defending apartheid. Afterwards, I realized you felt the same passion for patients depending on you, and Bob had hired you over more qualified assistants because he saw what you were made of.

I wish I had asked if you ever wanted to be famous. Had you stayed you would have been queen of the realm—earning awards, dinners in your honor, and guest lectureships everywhere. I guess you were happy to be spared that kind of attention, preferring the undisturbed backroom where you could counsel patients and care for their embryos. You were content for Bob and Patrick to be the front men. Bob will go down in history as a scientific pioneer. Patrick passed away too soon to share the Nobel Prize and earn a knighthood, but won’t be forgotten. I’m told that quite a few patients from Bourn Hall still wander across the lawn to stand reverently at his graveside outside the chapel. He’s lying just 15 minutes away from you, but no one makes that journey.

Some of our nurses in America inquired about your story a few years ago. They only knew you were first in the field, but that was enough to create the Jean Purdy Visionary Award. I shared everything I knew for their introductory speech for award-winners, but my knowledge was threadbare and I never managed to find your family to fill the gaps. They have vanished. I found an unrelated woman called Jean Purdy in London; she works as a magician, but you were the real thing. The award was a wonderful naming legacy and I’m terribly sorry that it too has disappeared. You would just put your arm over my shoulder to console me, saying it doesn’t really matter.

If I could go back in time I would love to ask how you felt when you started working with human embryos. The first were experimental because you needed to check they were healthy before Patrick dared to give them a chance of making a pregnancy. I heard you had a devout faith, though I didn’t know your church denomination. Did you ever have qualms about making and destroying embryos? For myself, I believe they deserve respect, but could never understand people who wanted to endow full human rights from the moment of fertilization. Moral philosophers and theologians are still arguing the point, although every nation I can think of has either legitimized IVF or turned a blind eye to the practice. Since your time, embryos have been used to create stem cells for regenerative medicine, which Bob dreamt about half-a-century ago and George W. Bush tried to can a dozen years ago. Although it really started in your lab, I doubt you ever imagined that your work might one day help to cure the incurable. If you read nothing else in this post I would want you to know your endeavors weren’t wasted.

Human blastocyst
Human blastocyst

When I asked a friend at the Hall where I could find you she offered to drive me to Grantchester. I hadn’t visited the village since I was a student. Then I used to cycle over from college or punt on the Granta against the stream, feeling I deserved a drink at The Green Man when I arrived. It was mead in those days. Sometimes I joined students enjoying a cream tea under the apple trees in The Orchard, which is still associated with Rupert Brooke. His patriotic war poems fell out of popularity long ago, but his own tragedy still draws me to his romantic verse, even the schmaltz about his Grantchester home.

The church at Grantchester. Thanks to Kay Elder
The church at Grantchester. Thanks to Kay Elder

And laughs the immortal river still

Under the mill, under the mill?

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke (1912)

I ask myself why it has taken so long to write to you, and why now? Perhaps Bob’s passing is prompting me (Blog date April 2013). Perhaps news of Louise’s 35th birthday last month nudged me. But I think it is because the book I finished today jogged something in my unconscious. You might have enjoyed the life story of a remarkable but long forgotten New York surgeon.* Had I more data, I might have started your biography next. Stories of people who made a difference but now lounge in obscurity fascinate me so much more than those still celebrated. They resonate with the last lines George Eliot wrote in her tribute to Dorothea, … the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who have lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

When we reached Grantchester churchyard I could imagine the dreich day when you were laid under the grass beside your mother. It’s a rather unkempt, inauspicious corner with nothing to draw the eye of casual visitors who meander between the stones. Had I been asked to order your memorial I would have insisted on a granite carving, Here lies Jean Purdy, the World’s First IVF Nurse and Embryologist, died 1985 aged 39. But your name painted on a gray headstone is being eaten away by rain and wind, the plastic flowers the most cheerful feature of that bleak spot. Rupert Brooke would have walked over from his rooms at the Vicarage to compose an ode.

Jean's grave

*A Surgeon’s Story by Roger Gosden and Pam Walker will be available on Amazon soon. See Jamestowne Bookworks for news.

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