Oxfordshire’s blue plaques: Patrick Steptoe (1913-1988)

This magazine has included articles about local blue plaques and the causes behind them – the recording studio in Chipping Norton and a plaque in West End in the same town remembering the pioneer behind the development of the humble aspirin.  Now our attention turns to a blue plaque in Witney’s West End that remembers the contribution of Patrick Steptoe to a gynaecological revolution.

Patrick Steptoe, born in Witney, lived at 52 West End until his marriage.  Large families were common in those days; Patrick was one of ten.  He attended Witney Grammar School, now Henry Box, where his interests included music, leading him to play the organ at the nearby St Mary’s Church.

Wartime saw him serving in the navy where his ship was torpedoed resulting in two years in a POW camp in Italy.  Returning home he married Sheena Kennedy in 1943 and they moved to London to take up his first appointment as chief assistant in obstetrics at St. George’s, then registrar at Whittington Hospital.

It was when he moved to Oldham Hospital that his career blossomed and he came to the notice of a wider public through his development of laparoscopy – an internal examination of the abdomen – as an accurate and safe procedure.  But it was perhaps when he began to work in partnership with Robert Edwards, a young geneticist and embryologist, that huge changes began to be made in fertility treatment, a subject that had always intrigued Steptoe.  Infertility had long been an almost accepted barrier to motherhood, a barrier that he was determined to overcome.

The breakthrough came on 25 July 1978 when Louise Brown, the first ‘test tube baby’ was born.  Up until then, the idea of combining sperm and an egg outside the human body was largely the dream of sci-fi stories.  Now, here was success and the dream was a reality.

That same year, Steptoe retired from the NHS having risen to near god-like status alongside his partner.  Together, they founded the Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge and he was the clinic’s first Medical Director, a position he retained until his death in 1988.  Prior to that came the award of a CBE and, shortly before that, a FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society). 

So what is the legacy of Witney’s Patrick Steptoe?  It is estimated that eight million babies have been born by methods pioneered by the great man; that is eight million families that have benefited by his work.  When the plaque was revealed in May 2019, his son, Professor Andrew Steptoe, remarked: “IVF has now become a fairly routine activity and he would have liked that very much.”

February – March 2022