Robert Edwards of Britain has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine for developing in vitro fertilization, a procedure that has helped millions of infertile couples to have children.
The medicine prize is the first of six Nobel prizes scheduled to be awarded over the next week.
Edwards, who is an emeritus professor at Cambridge University, worked for over 20 years to develop the in vitro procedure.
In 1968, Edwards was able to fertilize the first egg outside a human body. He then collaborated with his colleague, gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, to finalize the in vitro method. The first "test-tube" baby, Louise Joy Brown, was born on July 25, 1978.
Throughout their research, Edwards and his colleagues faced criticism from governments, church groups, and other skeptics.
In a 1987 document, the Vatican's top doctrine watchdog body, the Congregation for the Doctrine, declared in vitro fertilization morally wrong for replacing the "natural" sexual union between husband and wife.
The Catholic Church has also decried Edwards' research for sometimes resulting in the destruction of nonimplanted embryos, which it says is a violation of human life.
The Nobel Assembly's decision to award Edwards was met with fresh condemnation by the Vatican, whose top ethics official called it "completely out of place."
In an interview with Italy's ANSA news service, Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula also criticized in vitro fertilization as leading to "incomprehensible situations like children born from grandmothers and mothers 'for hire.'"
In explaining the importance of Edwards' discovery, Goran Hansson, secretary of the Nobel Committee at Sweden's Karolinska Institute, said millions of couples worldwide had had children thanks to in vitro fertilization.
Edwards, 85, is in poor health. The Nobel Committee said it had telephoned his wife, who assured it that Edwards would be very pleased. Steptoe died in 1988.
The Nobel Committee never lists the possible candidates for the prizes, which creates an atmosphere of intense media speculation in the days leading up to the announcement. Experts nevertheless sometimes manage to predict the winner.
Citing unnamed sources, the Swedish daily "Svenska Dagbladet" reported this morning, hours before the official announcement, that Edwards was the "hottest" candidate to receive the medicine prize.
When asked by reporters, a member of the committee said he "woke up and was completely shocked" by the leak.
Nobel prizes, created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, were first handed out in 1901. The 50-member Nobel Committee decides on the winners by a majority vote.
The Nobel Committee is scheduled to announce its prizes in physics on October 5, chemistry on October 6, literature on October 7, the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8, and economics on October 11.
This year's laureates will receive 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.49 million), a diploma, and a gold medal.
Famous Nobel winners include Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, and President Barack Obama, who received last year's Peace Prize.
But most winners are relatively anonymous until they are suddenly catapulted into the global spotlight by the prize announcement.
compiled from agency reports