The Road to IVF: Dame Anne McLaren

Discover the pioneering work and genius of Dame Anne McLaren whose work paved the way for human IVF technologies.

Born in London in 1927, Anne McLaren and her family moved to their estate at Bodnant, North Wales, at the start of the War.

Her father was Sir Henry Mclaren, a Liberal MP and keen gardener who preserved and added to the beautiful gardens at Bodnant.

Portrait of Anne McLaren (1975) by Godfrey ArgentThe Royal Society

McLaren studied Zoology at Oxford university, before returning to London to complete her post graduate studies at University College London.

In 1958, while at the Royal Veterinary College, she co-authored (with John Biggers) the ground-breaking paper ‘Successful Development and Birth of Mice cultivated in vitro as Early Embryos’ published in the journal Nature. 

In the 50's she was researching fertility in mice and in 1958 published a landmark paper in Nature journal that documented the successful birth of mice in vitro - a pivotal step in the development of human IVF treatment.

McLaren's work proved it was possible to join sperm and eggs outside the mother’s body and generate a healthy embryo that could grow to term after transferred. 

20 years after the Nature journal was published the first IVF baby, Louise Brown,  was born.

By Albert FennLIFE Photo Collection

Anne had a remarkable academic career, publishing over 300 scientific papers in her lifetime. She worked in many world leading research organisations including the Royal Veterinarian College, MRC Mammalian Development Unit and the Institute of Animal Genetics.

By 1974, she was Director of the Medical Research Council's Mammalian Development Unit (the 'MDU').In the wake of her tireless and impactful work, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1975.

Anne studied zoology at Oxford before going on to complete her post graduate studies at University College London (shown here).

Amid her academic accolades, Anne was known to be a wonderful articulate lecturer and a very approachable person. 

World Cup (1966-07) by Arthur RickerbyLIFE Photo Collection

McLaren was also a big football fan and wouldn't miss an international match if she could help it.

Beyond the labs and lecture halls, Anne was a poltical activist as part of the Oxford & District Peace Committee and regularly took part in left-wing causes, such as marches, demonstrations & fundraising events.

Portrait of Anne McLaren (1991) by Godfrey ArgentThe Royal Society

McLaren's Impact

Back in London in the 70's, McLaren focused her research on the development of germ cells - which are essential to understanding how cells grow and develop.

This research could then be used to understand how to replace of human cells damaged by injury or by degenerative diseases.

Portrait of Anne McLaren (1975) by Godfrey ArgentThe Royal Society

Alongside science, McLaren was also deeply aware of the ethical implications of her research. She was a member of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies and a passionate advocate among the scientific community for carefully regulated research on early mammalian and human embryos.

Portrait of Dame Anne McLaren DBE, FRS, FRCOG (2010) by Emma WesleyThe Royal Society

McLaren was also a long-term and active council member of the Pugwash conferences, which sought to ensure that scientific advances were used in the service of peace. In 1991, she became the foreign secretary of the Royal Society

Her research, legacy and ethics have had a lasting impact on families worldwide.

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