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 fertilization (IVF), Edwards picked up the prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5 million) for what the institute called a milestone in the development of modern medicine.
As many as 4 million babies have been born since the first IVF baby in 1978 as a result of the techniques Edwards developed, together with a now-deceased colleague, Patrick Steptoe, the institute said in a statement.
The pair soldiered on despite opposition from churches, governments and many in the media, as well as skepticism from scientific colleagues. They also had trouble raising money for their work, and had to rely on privately donated funds.
His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity including more than 10 percent of all couples worldwide, the institute said.
Scientists applauded the committee's decision.
The development of IVF has given hope to millions of people throughout the world, said Richard Kennedy, secretary general of the International Federation of Fertility Societies.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LOUISE BROWN
In 1968, Edwards and Steptoe, a gynecologist, developed methods to fertilize 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 IVF baby, was born.
The birth of Louise was a media sensation as it raised questions about medical ethics, drew religious concerns and piqued basic human curiosity.
Many wondered in the early stages of treatment whether an IVF baby would grow up normally.
Long-term follow-up studies have shown that IVF children are as healthy as other children, Karolinska said.
Brown has stayed in touch with Edwards all her life.
He is like a granddad to me, she was quoted as saying in an interview in Britain's Daily Mail two years ago.
Now 32, Brown is married and has one son who was conceived naturally.
In 1980, Edwards and Steptoe founded the first IVF clinic at Cambridge, where gynecologists and cell biologists around the world have trained.
Today, as many as 1-2 percent of babies in the western world are conceived through IVF methods, said committee member Christer Hoog, a professor of cell biology.
But access to IVF varies around the world. Many European healthcare systems fund it, but the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says treatment in the United States can cost patients up to $12,400.
Edwards, who has 11 grandchildren, was motivated by a desire to help families.
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, who is ill, was not available to speak to the media. Nobel committee member Goran Hansson told a news conference: I spoke to his wife, and she was delighted. She was sure he would also be delighted.
Although he has mostly been out of the limelight in recent years, Edwards 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.