His Colleagues Call Him "God." until He Came along Fertility Treatment Was Derided as "Futility Science." (Fertility Doctor Robert Winston)

By Daniel, Caroline | New Statesman (1996), June 19, 1998 | Go to article overview

His Colleagues Call Him "God." until He Came along Fertility Treatment Was Derided as "Futility Science." (Fertility Doctor Robert Winston)


Daniel, Caroline, New Statesman (1996)


"A schmucky Einstein", "a moral arbiter for our times" and "lord of fertility" (which makes him sound like the MC at a pagan ritual) are just a few of the names he has earned. At the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, they know him simply as "God". It is not intended as a compliment. The man behind these names? Professor Robert Winston, fertility doctor and Labour peer.

We meet in his offices in Hammersmith Hospital, cosily situated next door to Wormwood Scrubs. On the filing cabinet in his secretary's office is a human skull, plonked eerily next to a coffee cup. Death as a fact of life. Winston is busy clearing his desk, a host frantically tidying up before guests arrive. He looks both smaller and younger than I expected. His Zapata moustache remains darkly luxuriant, despite his age, 57.

"Haven't I been profiled enough?" he asks bearishly, before indulging in a quick dig at some reviews of the BBC1 series, The Human Body, he is currently presenting. In it, Winston undeniably displays star quality - and a willingness to appear in several different guises. Here's Winston cradling a new-born babe. Winston rally-car racing. Winston dressed in a silvery fire-proof costume surrounded by flames. And Winston under water at the London aquarium, looking distinctly uncomfortable in diving gear. (On emerging from the tank matters got even worse. A This Is Your Life team bundled him off to have his past paraded before him, an experience Winston describes as "deeply embarrassing".)

Members of the moral minority have already complained about the series. They accuse the BBC of pandering to voyeurism. Not because the opening sequence depicts a line of nude and seminude people in a forest, starting from a child aged one and ending with an adult, aged 100 (the first black man in the line modestly breaks rank by keeping on his Y-fronts).

No, it is death, not nudity that has prompted the complaints. The final programme in the series next week will show, for the first time on British television, someone's death. The first scene is of someone's last breath depicted in the abstract, using warmth-tracking imaging.

The star of the show this time is not Winston, but Herbie. We witness his slow death from inoperable abdominal cancer, filmed over a period of months in his home in Ireland. It is almost painful to watch Herbie smoke cigarettes, as his stomach bloats with the cancer. He dies surrounded by family, friends and hospice nurses.

"The programme was made with the clear recognition that we might have to pull the plug on it at any stage" says Winston. "If it seemed like being mawkish or voyeuristic or objectionable we would pull it."

He hopes the final product will make people think about what happens when we die, and show that death can be dignified. As for making him think about his own mortality, he says, "I've always thought about death because I had one parent die when I was nine: I was confronted with it early on."

Winston had a traditional north London Jewish upbringing. He went to St Paul's public school. His grandfather, a rabbi, was a strong influence. In his 20s he was more into acting than academe. He still proudly mentions an "award-winning Pirandello production" in his Who's Who entry.

So why ditch directing for reproductive medicine? "It combines so many aspects of what it is to be ourselves. When I started, infertility was poorly researched and was known as the 'futility clinic', so there was a lot of science to be done. It covers family and sexual medicine as well as social and genetic issues."

There was also the attraction of creating "a real entity". His office is a testament to his work. The walls are covered with hundreds of pictures of babies his team have helped to create with IVF. In 1991 his unit hosted a 1,000th baby party.

Ironically, given Winston's current status as a pioneer in IVF, he was sceptical about its potential at first. …

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