Robert Winston: early life

Shunning the theatre in favour of the laboratory...
26 September 2023




Robert Winston was born in London on the 15th of July, 1940. He's a British professor, medical doctor, scientist, television presenter, and a Labour peer. He's also been heavily involved in IVF research and pioneered new techniques in screening human embryos. He joined Hammersmith Hospital as a registrar in 1970 and, as a Wellcome research fellow, he became an associate professor at the Catholic University in Leuven in 1975 and was scientific advisor to the WHO's programme in human reproduction from 1975 to 1977. He's written hundreds of books and articles and presented several BBC television series, including 'Superhuman: The Secret Life of Twins' and the award-winning 'The Human Body.' He's also a lifelong supporter of Arsenal Football Club, and a passionate musician. He also briefly embarked on a career in the theatre before he decided he was going to work on fertility.

Chris - Let's go right back to the beginning. Let's hear about the very young Robert Winston. What were the early years like for you?

Robert - It was a pretty happy childhood, I suppose, marred by the death of my father when I was eight. My mother and father were very involved with each other emotionally and they were both fairly political, but not party political. They didn't believe in party politics.

Chris - And this interest in theatre.

Robert - Well, my aunt was a theatre director and she took me to my first theatre, The Lyric, at about the age of six. And my grandmother on my father's side was an opera singer, and I think theatre was in the blood, actually. And in fact, quite a lot of my family looking back - they tell bad stories which aren't true, really - but they're very theatrical.

Chris - So at what point were you disabused of the notion that the theatre was the direction to go and you went down the medical line. Were you pushed into that or did you think, 'No, that's my calling.'

Robert - Well, I left school without any clear idea what I wanted to do. I had a place to do natural sciences and I suddenly thought, I don't want to look down a microscope for the rest of my life. Also, I unusually had a gap year because that wasn't very common. Normally, you went straight from school to university. So I had a gap year and I thought, I don't know what I'm going to do. So I rather idly wrote round at the end of the summer term to three different medical schools and got a couple of interviews. I was interviewed by the first one and they said, 'why aren't you wanting to go to Cambridge?' And I said, 'Well, I just think it would be quite interesting to do medicine here.' So I ended up doing medicine and I had no clear idea about it. And actually, if I'm honest, and this is something that's not easy to admit, but it just seemed quite glamorous to be a medical student.

Chris - I wondered if it was the operating theatre that was the attraction that pulled you into it, because you went to the London Hospital Medical College, which is actually where I went to medical school when it still existed. It merged with St. Bartholomew's and then into what's now Queen Mary, University of London. But what happened through medical school, then? Did you then get drawn towards fertility? Because that's what you are most known for.

Robert - No, it was nothing like that really. Of course, you're right about theatre and medicine because, of course, obviously that's what surgeons did and when people went to see Fabricius operating in Padua, you know, it was a theatre. It was a real theatre. You were never more than a hundred metres away from the body that they were dissecting. I took a whole term to dissect one body. The smell must have been awful. I think I knew I was interested in women's health. That was quite a big thing.

Chris - While at medical school? Even then?

Robert - I was. But I did look at other things and I wondered about psychiatry, I wondered about orthopaedics. I was interested in a whole range of different things and then when I got into doing clinical medicine, I suddenly realised there was a real need to look at women's health much more intensively. I felt that, actually, women hadn't really been getting a very good deal and it was very, very clear that there was a huge amount of research going on in reproduction which was worth doing, and also generally pregnancy. If you're not brilliant, it's quite sensible to go to an area where there isn't much competition. And actually, at that time, reproduction was wide open.

Chris - And you judge yourself to be not brilliant? Very self-effacing.

Robert - I think I'm quite ordinary. I think, really, I was very lucky. Also, I had some wonderful teachers. At school, there was a man called Sid Pask. I did my first in vitro fertilisation when I was 16 with a sea urchin's eggs. And Sid Pask took a group of us up to Scotland, to a marine biology station, and he gave us experiments to do which had been published in the literature. Lord Rothschild was one of the people he suggested I should try and look at. So we looked at what he was looking at, which was the block to polyspermy in eggs. And Rothschild chose to look at what was happening to that moment when fertilisation occurs, there's penetration of the egg, and immediately there's this membrane which forms around the air which prevents other sperm getting in. And it was very simple to reproduce that under the microscope because it's just seawater. But I never for a moment thought I'd be doing this in humans 20 years later.

Chris - It must have planted a seed though, it sounds like it did.

Robert - I suppose I started to try to collect eggs and fertilise them in about 1976, which was about two years before the first IVF baby.

Chris - That's when Bob Edwards and Patrick Steptoe were beginning had been pursuing for a number of years the whole IVF idea, isn't it? Because Louise Brown came along in 1978 as the first IVF baby.

Robert - Bob's papers go back to the sixties, and I think it's very interesting to look back. There have been so many interesting things said about the beginnings of IVF and sometimes I think there's a lot of mythology about what really happened.

Chris - Did you meet them? Did you spend time with them?

Robert - Yes, I did spend some time with them, but I'm afraid we didn't really get on very well. I think Patrick felt sidelined because he very much wanted to be in a London teaching hospital, which I was of course.

Chris - This is at the Hammersmith Hospital by then?

Robert - The Royal Post Graduate Medical School, which was really a wonderful place to be at. And Patrick was out at Oldham. I don't know, we didn't get on. This isn't a criticism of them. I think that he'd worked really hard for a very long time and he'd been under huge scrutiny and massive criticism for what he was doing as being 'unethical.'

Chris - The Daily Mail ran a headline when Louise Brown was born saying, 'This was the devil's work.' This is the national press. The front page news would be: it's the devil's work, making life in a dish. Was it that they wanted to get there first before they shared this? Was this just scientific protectionism and then they were happy to let people have this? Or was there something else going on?

Robert - I can't really comment on their motives, but they didn't publish the details of what they'd done very quickly. If you look at the publication record, you can see there was a long delay. And certainly, they were invited to Australia to look at the other big group doing this with Alan Trounson who was, to me, a hero. Alan, I think, is one of the really great people in reproduction generally because Alan shared everything. There was one occasion when I went to Melbourne specifically because he'd left IVF and come back to it because the Melbourne unit wasn't working very well, the pregnancy rate had slumped and he'd obviously changed the lab. And I went down there, got dressed and went into the sterile environment which he had and there he was in the centre of the virology laboratory on his own.

Robert - I didn't see him at first because he just had a hat and mask and everything on, gown and over shoes. And he was looking down a microscope with his back to me and I walked in and, as I walked towards him, I could see this plume of smoke coming up from the petri dish. And it was only when I got really close to him I could see that actually he had a mask on and there was a cigarette under the corner of the mask. And Alan said, 'You know what? I think the ash is quite good for it.'

Chris - I was going to say, what was the conception rate? Maybe nicotine is a good stimulus for conception.

Robert - Alan's a genius.


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