The many births of the test-tube baby: Proof and publicity in claims to a breakthrough

Date/Day: 27 February 2024, Tuesday

Time: 10.30am to 12.30pm

In-Person Attendance

Venue: SHHK Auditorium

Register: here

Virtual Attendance

YouTube Livestream: here


Communication is intrinsic to science from the inspiration for an experiment to discussion of the results. Chief among the questions this insight raises is how, in different periods, discoveries or breakthroughs have been announced and recognized or rejected. Though articles in scientific journals played major parts from around 1900, these have not simply topped a stable hierarchy. They are nodes in webs that have varied by time and place. Now, more than ever, that web involves the mass media. So to understand how claims have been pressed and judged, we should not accept casual distinctions between ‘specialist’ and ‘popular’ but must track knowledge-making between journals, newspapers and television. The lecture will exemplify this approach for claims to human in vitro fertilization (IVF). The birth of Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’, in England in 1978 not only led to over eight million other children worldwide, a multi-billion-dollar fertility industry, human embryonic stem cells and a Nobel Prize. It has also had profound implications for the humanities and social sciences, from anthropology to the law. Yet Brown was far from the first ‘test-tube baby’ to be announced and some experts initially doubted even this claim. To grasp why her birth is nevertheless recognized as the founding achievement of reproductive biomedicine, we need to consider the full web of communication through the decades after World War II. Conversely, a close analysis of claims to human in vitro fertilization can show how the operation of that web changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when the interplay intensified between journals and newspapers, TV and press conferences, symposia and magazines. Even in our age of preprint servers and social media those changes still shape knowledge.

About the Speaker:

Nick Hopwood is Professor of History of Science and Medicine in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, and a deputy chair of Cambridge Reproduction. He is, most recently, the author of Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (University of Chicago Press, 2015), which won the Levinson Prize of the History of Science Society, and co-editor of Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge University Press, 2018), which is available as a highly illustrated paperback. He is finishing The Embryo Series: Imaging Human Development Before Birth and holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship to write The Many Births of the Test-Tube Baby.