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In vitro fertilisation (IVF)

A four cell human embryo being collected via a glass micropipette during IVF.

A four cell human embryo being collected via a glass micropipette during IVF.

Credits:M. Johnson, Wellcome Library

In vitro fertilisation, better known by the initials IVF, literally means ‘fertilisation in a glass’. It is a laboratory procedure to assist women with fertility problems in which an egg is fertilised by sperm within a Petri dish. The first child born through IVF was Louise Brown in England in 1978. Now thousands of ‘test-tube babies’ are born each year.

The pioneers of IVF were two British researchers: gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and physiologist Robert Edwards. Both were interested in human fertility problems before collaborating in 1966: Edwards had fertilised human eggs within the laboratory; Steptoe had obtained human eggs from the ovaries by using a laparoscope, a long, thin telescopic instrument. Combining these skills produced mature eggs at the optimum time to improve chances for successful fertilisation and development.

The IVF process now follows several steps. Drug and hormone treatment encourages a woman’s body to produce a greater number of eggs. Once they are mature, these eggs are collected by a specialist guided by live ultrasound images of the ovaries. The eggs are then mixed with sperm. In certain cases they may be directly injected with a single sperm. Successfully fertilised eggs are placed in an incubator before two or three are transferred directly into the womb. Remaining eggs are frozen for future IVF attempts.

IVF is a major infertility treatment, but it is expensive and invasive. Although success rates have improved, a large difference remains between the number of successful implantations and those which result in a live birth.


R Edwards and P Steptoe, A Matter of Life: The Story of a Medical Breakthrough (London: Hutchinson, 1980)

R Deech and A Smajdor, From IVF to Immortality: Controversy in the Era of Reproductive Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)



A substance produced in one part of the body which passes into the bloodstream and is then carried to other (distant) organs or tissues, where it acts to modify their structure or function