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History of the BFS

The History of the BFS : 1972-1997

By H. E. Reiss

In October 1972, during the third European Sterility Congress (ESCO) meeting in Athens, Patrick and Sheena Steptoe hosted a drinks party in their suite at the Hilton Hotel (Patrick liked to do things in style). Among those present were Elliot Philipp, Arthur Williams, Hamis Chalmers, Harold and Winifred Frances, Jimmy Steele, John Frankenberg, John Newton, myself and our wives. The possibility of forming a British Fertility Society, similar to those existing in other European and American countries, was first mooted on this occasion.

On July 18th 1973, Patrick Steptoe, Elliot Philipp, Victor Lewis, Wendy Love and myself met at the Royal Society of Medicine to discuss the aims, constitution and membership of the proposed Society, and it was agreed to form a provisional committee and that Patrick would write to some 50 gynaecologists, known to have a special interest in infertility. Further committee meetings were held in September and October 1973 and January 1974. The first clinical meeting of the British Fertility Society (BFS) was held on March 21st 1974 at the Royal Northern Hospital in London, at the invitation of the local consultants: Elliot Philipp, Ian Donaldson and Michael Pugh. At the business meeting following the clinical demonstrations, attended by 22 members, the BFS was officially constituted, the aims and membership were agreed and officers and an executive committee were elected.


It is relevant to discuss the motives of those who combined to form a new Society. Primarily it was felt that the Society should provide a forum for British gynaecologists with a special interest in infertility. Originally it was intended to keep the membership small enough to form a travelling club where members or invited guests could demonstrate surgical procedures in their own hospitals. This was entirely appropriate at that time when, in the pre-assisted reproductive technology era, gynaecologists had a one-to-one relation with their infertility patients, with small contributions from andrologists and endocrinologists and when surgery was the only treatment available for women with damaged tubes, however severe the damage. Indeed, at the first clinical meeting at the Royal Northern Hospital (1974), Professor Kurt Swolin from Gothenburg demonstrated microsurgical salpingostomy, Patrick Steptoe laparoscopy and Kenneth Shuttleworth male infertility surgery. At the second clinical meeting, in Oxford (1975) Arthur Williams demonstrated reversal of sterilization and John Bonnar utriculoplasty.

There were two other reasons behind the foundation of the Society. One was dissatisfaction with the Society for the Study of Fertility (SSF) which appeared dominated by animal scientists with minimal human clinical concerns; the other was the desire to affiliate with the rapidly developing International Federation of Fertility Societies (IFFS) whose constituent members were not individuals but national societies.

Aims of the BFS

These were agreed at the first clinical meeting, i.e. to encourage the study of problems of human reproduction; to organize clinical meetings in Britain and abroad, and to affiliate with the IFFS. In 1993 these aims were re-affirmed and expanded to include the promotion of research, the holding of joint meetings with Societies with related interests, to seek support for training fellowships and other awards for junior members, to publish material aimed at promoting standards in the discipline, to promote high standards of training, to liaise with professional, government and patient organizations and to be an effective voice projected to society to explain and promote principles and good practice (including ethics) in areas of competence.


Originally Patrick Steptoe, in 1973, wrote to some 50 practitioners inviting them to join. By the time of the first clinical meeting, 34 had joined; the majority were gynaecologists but Robert Edwards, Jean Ginsburg and Bill Hendry were founding members from other specialities who contributed significantly from the beginning to the development of the Society. Initially it was intended to limit membership to 75 individuals and this number was reached by 1979. At the meeting at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1983, Bob Edwards and Michael Hull proposed a radical change in the membership to increase numbers and include more scientists and laboratory practitioners as well as nurses, junior doctors and counsellors. This was subsequently accepted and by 1986, there were 108 members, by 1990 there were 373, by 1995, 766 and now the total is over 800.

The initial yearly subscription was £3 and members were encouraged from the outset to pay by standing orders. Two members, unbeknown to them, contributed £3 monthly for some time until advised by the Treasurer. The subscription was increased to £5 in 1979 and to £10 in 1983; with inflation, growing numbers, the need for computerization and for secretarial assistance, it has now risen to the current fees.


Patrick Steptoe was the first chairman (1974-1986) and was succeeded by Herbert Reiss (1986-1989), Robert Winston (1990-1993), Howard Jacobs (1993-1996) and Ian Cooke (since 1997). Patrick, on relinquishing the office of chairman in 1986 became the first President of the Society from 1986 until his death in 1988. He was succeeded by Bob Edwards (1988-1992), Sir Malcolm Macnaughton (1992-1995) and Anne McLaren (since 1995).

Victor Lewis. BFS 40th Anniversary event in London on 6 July, 2013. Photo by Justin Tallis 07900 492002

Victor Lewis. BFS 40th Anniversary event in London on 6 July, 2013. Photo by Justin Tallis 07900 492002

Victor Lewis was the first secretary (1974-1986), to be followed by Mike Hull (1986-1989), John Newton (1989-1993), John Mills (1994-1997) and Peter Wardle (since 1997). I acted as treasurer (1974-1986) and was succeeded by Frank Loeffler (1986-1991) and Tony Rutherford (since 1992). Wendy Love and Elliot Philipp were the first meetings secretaries.

It was during John Newton’s tenure of office that the phenomenal growth in membership took off; he was also responsible for setting up a modern office organization and arranging lasting links with a number of large pharmaceutical concerns. Recognition for his outstanding contribution to the development of the Society was paid by a presentation at the Society’s dinner during the meeting at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, in 1993.

Clinical Meetings

The pattern of two meetings a year has been maintained without interruption since the Society’s foundation. Most major centres in England, Wales and Scotland have hosted meetings; it is a particular pleasure to acknowledge the enormous amount of work undertaken and hospitality and generosity shown by the various centres. Six overseas meetings took place between 1976 and 1987. In 1976 we were the guests of Professor Hans Frangenheim at Konstanz, Germany, when 20 members attended. Laparoscopy demonstrations and a visit to the Storz factory were highlights of the meeting. In 1977, 24 members visited Louvain at the invitation of Professor Ivo Brosens; microsurgical techniques and male infertility were the principal subjects demonstrated and discussed. In 1980, 26 members were entertained by Professor Alain Audebert and the French Fertility Society in Bordeaux. There were joint meetings with the Greek Fertility Society in Rhodes in 1983, attended by 19 members, and with the Canadian Fertility Society in Vancouver in 1984, hosted by Victor Gomel. In 1987, a party of 11 members visited Israel and were entertained by Professor Jo Schenker in Jerusalem and Professor Vaclav Insler in Be’er Sheva. At all these meetings, clinical sessions consisted of contributions both from our hosts and from our members.

It has been a happy tradition that meetings are followed by a dinner and there have been many such memorable occasions; dinners in the Senior Common Room of Oriel College, Oxford (1975), hosted by Alec Turnbull; at Thornbury Castle during our first Bristol Meeting (1978); at the Royal College of Surgeons. Edinburgh; at the Botanical Gardens in Birmingham and in the magnificent Old Hall of Queen’s College, Cambridge, are among the many that will be remembered. Among our overseas meeting dinners, the most memorable were at the Insel Hotel at Konstanz and, above all, a banquet at Chateau Palmer during the 1980 Bordeaux meeting.

Numerous clinical meetings have been held with other societies. Particularly successful were the joint meetings with the British Andrology Society in Sheffield (1987) and Warwick (1995) and with the Society for the Study of Fertility in Bristol in 1992. There was a joint meeting with the Blair Bell Society (1986) and we contributed a session on ectopic pregnancy at the Third Annual European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESRE) meeting in Cambridge (1987). A major joint meeting with the Society for the Study of Fertility and the British Andrology Society took place in York in July 1997.

As befits a Society with expanding interests and membership, two well attended ‘International Meetings’, each lasting 3 days, were held at the Hammersmith Hospital, London (December 1991) and in Glasgow (May 1994). Lectures by distinguished scientists and clinicians from abroad supplemented contributions from our own members. During the Hammersmith meeting in 1991, Professor Robert Edwards delivered the first Patrick Steptoe Memorial Lecture. This lectureship, sponsored by Organon, has become a regular feature; the lecturer is presented with a scroll and commemorative plaque. Subsequent lectures have been given by Howard Jones (1992) on ‘Assisted Reproductive Technology: a Report from a (former) Colony’, Professor Alan Trounson (1994) on ‘Scientific Developments in New Reproductive Technology’ and by Professor Andre van Steirteghem (1996) on ‘Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection’. The fifth Patrick Steptoe Memorial Lecture was given by Professor Roger Short at the York meeting (1997).

Special Symposia as well as Free Communications and Poster sessions were introduced into clinical meetings at an early date and have assumed increasing importance. The latter also present an opportunity for junior members to make perhaps their first public presentation, and prizes are now available to encourage them to do so.

For information on current meetings and training workshops since this historical piece was written please see our website.

Honorary Officers and Fellows

At the first clinical meeting, Professor S J Behrman (Ann Arbor, MI, USA), President of IFFS and Professor Stanley Clayton, President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) were invited to become Honorary Presidents’ both accepted. It has been customary for a new PRCOG to become an Honorary President since then. At the same time Dr Kurt Swolin was elected as our first Honorary Fellow. Other honorary fellows elected since include Alain Audebert, Ivo Brosens, Jean Cohen, Dame Mary Donaldson, Hans Frangenheim, Howard Jones Jnr., Anne McLaren and Marku Seppala.

Howard Jones Jnr HON NORFOLK USA
Geoffrey Chamberlain HON BARNET United Kingdom
Ivo Brosens HON LEUVEN Belgium
Lilo Mettler HON KIEL Germany
Jennifer Hunt HON RICKMANSWORTH United Kingdom
Robert Harrison HON DUBLIN Ireland
Elizabeth Corrigan HON BRISTOL United Kingdom
Clare Lewis-Jones HON BEXHILL ON SEA United Kingdom
John Newton HON POOLE United Kingdom
Henry Leese HON WINDERMERE United Kingdom
Peter Wardle HON BRISTOL United Kingdom
Howard S Jacobs HON LONDON United Kingdom
Allan Templeton HON WESTER ROSS United Kingdom
Jane Denton HON LONDON United Kingdom
Johannes Evers HON MAASTRICHT Netherlands
Ian Cooke HON SHEFFIELD United Kingdom
Alison Murdoch HON Newcastle UK 2015
Mark Hamilton Hon Aberdeen UK 2016
Richard Kennedy Hon Coventry UK 2016

Links with the pharmaceutical industry and instrument makers

Cordial and lasting relations with many of these have been established since the formation of the Society. Generous financial support has been given by many companies, without which the Society could not have functioned or achieved its aims. Exhibition stands are a regular feature of all clinical meetings and most BFS members have, over the years, come to know and respect the representatives. Some of the latter have been admitted to Associate membership. Among the most important sponsors are Organon (the Patrick Steptoe Memorial Lecture), Serono who have sponsored the Serono-BFS scientific training fellowship and Casmed who are financing selected juniors’ travel and accommodation expenses to attend meetings. There are special prizes donated for the best free communication, poster and nursing presentations at meetings.

Recent developments

These reflect the ever increasing role played by the Society. We have become spokesmen on our speciality recognized both by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and by various patient-consumer groups with whom joint meetings are held. Close links have been established with the Fertility Nurses Group of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). Workshops on endoscopic surgery, andrology, reproductive endocrinology, nursing and counselling are now a regular feature of the clinical meetings. Our activities reflect the multidisciplinarian approach which is essential for the functioning of modern assisted conception units. Scientists, nurses and counsellors now constitute a large proportion (>25%) of the membership. Guidelines on diagnostic classification, basic diagnostic procedures, data collection and audit in infertility practice have been produced.

After prolonged discussion, with appropriate consultation with lawyers and financial advisers, the BFS became a Limited Company in March 1997. It is hoped that Charitable status for the Society will follow. Other measures to develop the Society’s role further are the establishment of subcommittees dealing with policy and practice, ethics and finance. Perhaps the most exciting new venture has been the decision to publish the Society’s own Journal. For many years abstracts of presentations at clinical meetings have been published, first by the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and later by Human Reproduction. It was felt that with the increasing membership and attendance at meetings, full publication of presentations, rather than just brief abstracts , was not only desirable but would also present the Society’s views more cogently to other bodies such as the RCOG, the HFEA and the RCN. The publication of the Journal of the British Fertility Society as a supplement to Human Reproduction further emphasizes the close relationship between the BFS and ESHRE.

The development of the BFS has been exciting and spectacular. It now holds a pivotal position in the recognition and management of problems (clinical, scientific and ethical) of reproductive medicine in the UK. This has been achieved by the untiring effort of the Society’s officers and members and above all by the vision and pioneering spirit of Patrick Steptoe. We can be rightly proud that he was the Founder, first Chairman and later first President of this Society. I have written elsewhere of his many accomplishments and quoted ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice’: if you require a monument for him, look around you. Such a look will include the BFS.

BFS 40th Anniversary event in London on 6 July, 2013. Photo by Justin Tallis 07900 492002

BFS 40th Anniversary event in London on 6 July, 2013. Photo by Justin Tallis 07900 492002

Eponymous lectures

Patrick Steptoe Memorial Prize Lecture
2016   Henry Leese

H S Jacobs President’s Lecture
2016   Anders Nyboe Andersen