How Nobel laureate went from Israel opponent to admirer

Exclusive: As a young British soldier in Palestine in 1947, Robert Edwards was infuriated by "Sergeants Affair"; visit 42 years later won him over.

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October 5, 2010 02:25
3 minute read.
Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Robert Edwards

311_IVF doctor. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Nobel Prize in Medicine winner Dr. Robert Edwards’s antipathy for the Jews of Palestine dissolved into great admiration for the Jewish state in 1989, thanks to a two-hour car tour with Kitty Schenker, the wife of Hadassah-University Medical Center obstetrician and gynecologist Prof. Joseph Schenker, who had invited him to a Jerusalem conference on in-vitro fertilization.

Edwards’s anger against the Jews, The Jerusalem Post learned on Monday, was kindled when he was a young British Army soldier in Mandatory Palestine in 1947. Two British sergeants were killed by the underground Jewish organization Etzel (Irgun Tzvai Leumi) in retaliation against the British authorities, who had implemented death sentences against Irgun members who had been charged with terrorism.

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The sergeants’ boobytrapped bodies were hung in an eucalyptus grove near Netanya, prompting British troops and policemen to go on a rampage in Tel Aviv, where five Jews were killed.

The “Sergeants Affair,” as it became known, also triggered anti-Semitic rioting in some British cities.

Edwards, who was a member of the same platoon as the dead sergeants, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, was so angry at their deaths that he strongly opposed the State of Israel.

Joseph Schenker, who was for years head of the Hadassah’s obstetrics/gynecology department, delivered the first Israeli test-tube baby in Jerusalem in 1981 – three years after the birth of the world’s first, Louise Brown. This embryo was produced in England by invitro fertilization (IVF) by Edwards and his colleague Dr. Patrick Steptoe.

“It was a boy, and I pledged to his mother that I would never divulge her name, because she thought her son would be embarrassed by how he was conceived,” Schenker recalled.

Schenker, who is today president of the International Academy of Human Reproduction, told the Post on Monday that he met “Bob,” now 85, at conferences abroad, and even nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Medicine 15 years ago.

“But he did not receive it before, because the Nobel academy members were angry at him and Steptoe for keeping the IVF process secret until they decided later to release the information.”

Steptoe, who died in 1988, could not receive the award posthumously, as only living persons can be Nobel laureates, Schenker explained.

When the IVF conference was scheduled at the then-Hilton Hotel in Jerusalem (now the Crowne Plaza) in 1989, Schenker invited Edwards, who initially refused to come, claiming Israelis “persecuted” Arabs. But when international pressure built up, he “arrived on the second day.” Edwards refused to address the conference and kept to himself at the hotel.

But then Schenker’s wife, Kitty, volunteered to take Edwards on a tour in her car. She took him to the Old City, Abu Ghosh and elsewhere, where he saw how the Arabs lived well and were prospering.

“From then on, he had changed views of Israel,” Schenker recalled.

Edwards even invited Schenker to serve on the board of a medical journal he edited.

Schenker has just published a 600-page, Hebrew-language volume called Promoting Health of Women, in which he gives much credit to Edwards and Steptoe.

“They produced a revolution,” he said on Monday. “Four to five million children were born thanks to their IVF technique, and today, two percent of all Israeli births are produced by IVF. It has been a blessing."

“If there are any more complications in IVF babies,” the Jerusalem gynecologist said, “it is among those deliveries that are multiple births, which means that they are usually born prematurely. But there is no proof that singleton IVF babies have any more difficulties than those conceived naturally.”

He added that Israel – with its very positive view of fertility – has two dozen IVF clinics and one of the highest rates of IVF pregnancies in the world.


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