Professor Ian Gordon 1928-2021

It is with sadness that we write to inform the Society of the passing of Professor Ian Gordon on July 5th 2021 at the age of 93.


Professor Gordon, or ‘Prof’ as he was affectionately known by all of his students, was a pioneer in the field of livestock reproduction, particularly in the area of oestrous synchronisation, superovulation and non-surgical embryo transfer and, latterly, in the area of in vitro embryo production in cattle. In recognition of his contributions, he received the prestigious Pioneer Awards from both the Association of Embryo Technology in Europe (AETE), in 1995, and the International Embryo Technology Society (IETS), in 1998.


Professor Gordon, initially left school at the age of 14 and worked for 6 years before gaining Matriculation from London University by private study in 1948. This enabled him to attend Nottingham University, from where he graduated with a B.Sc. in Agriculture (Class 1) in 1951. He subsequently embarked on his prolific scientific career at Cambridge, under the guidance of Sir John Hammond, widely regarded as the father of modern animal physiology. He earned a Diploma in Agriculture from Cambridge University in 1952 and obtained an M.A in 1955 and a PhD in 1957. His first appointment was as a Research Assistant in the School of Agriculture in  Cambridge, where he acted as an adviser on sheep breeding to Lord Rothschild, who was Chairman of the Agricultural Research Council at that time.


It was always Professor Gordon’s philosophy that his research should have commercial application. Much of his early work was carried out in association with farmers, in various parts of England and Wales, and was primarily concerned with the control and manipulation of reproduction in sheep to increase the efficiency of lamb production. He was also involved in early embryo transfer work in sheep in association with Dr. Tim Rowson and colleagues. As a result of extensive farm trials, he developed a progesterone - PMSG procedure which was to become the basis of a kit which was subsequently marketed by Burroughs Wellcome.


Having established a technique for controlled breeding in sheep, he next turned his attention

to gonadotrophin-induced twinning in cattle as a means of increasing reproductive efficiency. Again, much of this research was carried out in association with cattle farmers in England and Wales and was supported, in part, by the UK Milk Marketing Board. He moved to North America in 1961, where he spent two years at Washington State University working on embryo transfer and twinning with E.S.E Hafez and E. Rajakoski. In 1963, he was appointed Senior Lecturer at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland, and was quickly promoted to Professor of Animal Husbandry. Here, he worked on several aspects of controlled reproduction in sheep, cattle, pigs, and horses. While his early studies at UCD were concerned with refining procedures for synchronization of oestrus in sheep, he later devoted all of his energies to developing embryo transfer procedures for cattle. During the late sixties he turned his attention to in vitro maturation of oocytes and to the hormonal induction of superovulation. He was also instrumental in demonstrating that the rabbit oviduct could be used for the short-term culture of cow embryos before it was possible to achieve this in vitro. One of Professor Gordon’s major breakthroughs was the establishment of a simple non-surgical procedure for transferring embryos in the cow with relatively high levels of success. This procedure was adopted almost universally in the embryo transfer industry as it demonstrated that normal pregnancy and high twinning rates could be established using simple transcervical procedures. In the mid-eighties the main focus of his research became the development of procedures for the large-scale in vitro production of bovine embryos as an alternative to superovulation. This was prior to the development of transvaginal ovum-pick up procedures from the live cow and relied on the collection of immature oocytes from the ovaries of slaughtered cattle – to generate ‘embryos from offal’. This work paved the way for the establishment of Ovamass Ltd in 1987, the first company to commercialize the production of cattle embryos in vitro. 


Professor Gordon was a prolific writer, publishing many scientific articles with some 280 to his credit, but in his later years at UCD, from where he retired in 1993, and in his retirement, he published 6 books. His first book, Controlled Breeding in Farm Animals, was published in 1983. This later evolved into a four-volume series entitled Controlled Reproduction in Farm Animals separately dealing with Cattle and Buffalos (1996), Sheep and Goats (1997), Horse, Deer and Camelids (1997) and Pigs (1999). The second edition of his book Reproductive Technologies in Farm Animals, first published in 2004, was published as recently as 2017.  In addition, his masterpiece, Laboratory Production of Cattle Embryos was first published in 1994 with a second edition published in 2003. This tome was a true ‘one-stop-shop’ covering everything from the historical developments in IVF technology in cattle, through detailed chapters on oocyte recovery, oocyte maturation, sperm capacitation, IVF, embryo culture, cryopreservation to embryo transfer and embryos in research and commercial practice. Although, a little dated given the rapid progress over the past 20 years, this book is still a ‘must have’ for anyone working in the area. 


Professor Gordon was an excellent teacher; one of his greatest characteristics was his encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature. As undergraduate students we were riveted by his fascinating lectures, as he regaled us with anecdotes and stories from his own experience and from the literature. He supervised approximately 80 fulltime postgraduate research students (Masters and PhD) at UCD’s Lyons Research Farm. We were very fortunate to be among his last cohort of students.


Professor Gordon was a deeply private and modest individual. Few, if any, photos exist of him on the web. Indeed, some years ago when preparing a talk, we had to ask him to put his modesty aside and provide a photo. That photo appears here.


Pat Lonergan & Trudee Fair

School of Agriculture and Food Science

University College Dublin


Note: This note has drawn heavily on the text written by another of Professor Gordon’s students, Maurice Boland, at the time of the AETE and IETS Pioneer Awards and published in the respective proceedings.

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