British physiologist Robert Edwards, whose work led to the first "test-tube baby", won the 2010 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology, the prize-awarding institute said on Monday.
Sweden's Karolinska Institute lauded Edwards, 85, for bringing joy to infertile people all over the world.
Known as the father of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), Edwards picked up the prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5m) for a "milestone in the development of modern medicine", the institute said.
As many as four million babies have been born since the first test-tube baby in 1978 as a result of the techniques Edwards developed, together with a now-deceased colleague, Patrick Steptoe, it said.
They soldiered on despite opposition from churches, governments and many in the media, as well as scepticism from scientific colleagues.
"His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity including more than 10% of all couples worldwide," the institute said in a statement.
In 1968, Edwards and Steptoe, a gynaecologist, developed methods to fertilise human eggs outside the body.
Working at Cambridge University, they began replacing embryos into infertile mothers in 1972. But several pregnancies spontaneously aborted due to what they later discovered were flawed hormone treatments.
In 1977, they tried a new procedure which did not involve hormone treatments and relied instead on precise timing. On July 25 of the next year, Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born.
Edwards and Steptoe founded the first IVF clinic at Cambridge in 1980. Soon after, thousands of test-tube babies were being born in Britain, the US and elsewhere.
"The most important thing in life is having a child," Edwards has been quoted by his clinic as saying. "Nothing is more special than a child."
Steptoe died in 1988.
Edwards, whose publicist said he is now too ill to give interviews, has mostly been out of the limelight. He won the Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 2001.
Medicine is traditionally the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.
- (Reuters/October 2010)