IVF at 40. Louise Brown: My life as the world’s first ‘test tube baby’
On 10 November 1977, almost 40 years ago, the world’s first embryologist Jean Purdy observed that an embryo in a petri dish had divided into eight cells. It was implanted in Lesley Brown, and after nine years trying and failing to conceive, she became pregnant.
38 weeks later, her daughter Louise Joy Brown was born. She was the first of more than six and a half million – and counting – babies born by IVF.
Only a member of royalty receives the level of attention that birth of the world’s first ‘test tube baby’, attracted. In hospital in Oldham, photographers hoping for a picture of the newborn triggered a bomb scare, meaning patients had to be temporarily evacuated. And when Louise’s father John first met his daughter, who’d undergone at birth more than 60 tests to check she was ‘normal’, the hospital corridors were lined with police.
Once home, more than 100 journalists crowded around her parents’ Bristol house. Newspapers ran stories headlined ‘Baby of the Century’. But despite being thrown so very dramatically into the public gaze, Louise says that her parents were simply happy to have their daughter. “My mum just wanted a baby, and no matter what, she would have done it,” Louise believes.
Louise says that her mother didn’t “truly realize” that this was a world first until she was heavily pregnant. “When she saw Patrick [Steptoe], there were mums with babies and pregnant women in the waiting room, so she assumed it had worked before.”
Her mother kept all the postbags of cards that were sent congratulating the couple, and the “weird” mail too, including one package including a plastic fetus and broken test tube: “A lot of Catholic objection – and apparently I could read things with my mind and teleport stuff.”
It has taken Louise decades to feel entirely comfortable in her role of being famous by birth. “When I was younger it could play on my mind that everyone knows my name,” she says. “But now I like raising awareness and really enjoy meeting people who have been helped, indirectly, by Patrick and Bob’s [Robert Edwards] work.”
She hopes that one day, people everywhere with fertility problems will be offered an equal chance to become a parent, which she admits is “going to take a lot of hard work”. She spoke in European Parliament in February about parity of IVF treatment across the continent, rather than it being a lottery of geography. “Everyone should be entitled to have the chance to be a mum,” she believes. “Everyone should be offered the same amount of tries at IVF, it shouldn’t be determined by where you live.” She is disappointed that Bristol is cutting funding for fertility treatments as it takes on average three rounds of IVF for treatment to be successful.
Louise was able to conceive both of her sons without fertility treatment, and believes that until you’ve been put in the situation of not being able to have children, “you can’t understand it.” Her mother’s fertility problems were only recognized when she went to the doctor with depression, and her GP tried to discover the root cause.
Today, the practice that seemed so controversial 40 years ago is commonplace. “It’s opened things up for couples that need help, same sex couples, these are all positives,” Louise says. “It’s mind blowing.”
She is encouraged that the controversy which surrounded IVF when she was born (the Vatican said it was an event that could have ‘very grave consequences for humanity’) has reduced over the last four decades, and that there are other forms of assisted reproduction, such as surrogacy, which she admires and thinks is “amazing”, and new experimental ‘three parent’ procedures using two eggs and one sperm to eliminate genetic risks. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, a man or a woman, if you would like a baby,” she believes. “People said with me that ‘science can go too far’, but as long as medical advances are helping someone – and are for medical reasons – I completely agree with them.”
As for those who remain concerned about the medical hand in reproduction, she shrugs it off. “Still some people don’t agree with it, and they’re entitled to their opinion,” she says.
Her origins may have been miraculous, but Louise herself is almost determinedly normal. She works a nine-to-five job in a shipping office while her husband, a doorman, works nights. Their children, Cameron, 10, and Aiden, four, are in school, and they have a house full of pets: two dogs, three cats, a kitten, a tortoise hamster, rat, two rabbits – “well, I say normal,” she laughs.
She told her husband Wes the story of her birth a couple of months after meeting him. It wasn’t news to him: he’d grown up over the road from her childhood home, and is seven years older than her. “All the local children were stood outside my house, saying ‘the test tube baby’s coming home’. It’s weird really, to know that he was outside when I was born.”
Louise’s father died a fortnight before she became a mother, and her mother died five years ago. “I think of my parents all the time, and we talk about them. If you heard Cameron talk about my dad you’d think he’d met him. And mum used to have him for me when we were both working in the day.”
Her own upbringing was similarly down-to-Earth. “Mum felt although I was her baby she had to share me with the world,” she says. “She was very protective, but not overprotective. I don’t think they would have done it any differently from if mum could have had me naturally.” The family travelled when Louise was first born, but from when she reached school age the only interviews they did were those that Edwards and Steptoe requested.
Louise found out about her origins before her first day of school, aged four, when her parents showed her a video. “They said I was born slightly differently and gave me the heads up.” They were right to: people did comment at school. “I’ve always been a bigger girl and they used to say ‘How did I fit in the test tube?’, she remembers. “But they were not nasty, and there was going to be something said because it was so unusual back then. But I never took any notice of being called the ‘first test tube baby’. People would never know how a classmate was conceived these days.“
Four years after Louise’s birth, her sister Natalie became the 20th person to be born by IVF. But it wasn’t a subject they talked about with each other. “We had a normal life, then IVF was added on. We did interviews and had photographs taken. But our home life was non-IVF.”
Louise learned the rest of the story of her conception from listening to her parents being interviewed, piecing together the story. She has made sure that she’s been equally straightforward at telling her eldest son Cameron, 10, about her origins too. “I said nanny needed help from Bob and Patrick,” she explains. “He is proud, and tells me: ‘Mum, somebody saw you in paper’, or, ‘You were a question in a quiz’.” It’s a story that she will continue to recount at the fertility conferences and events she is invited to worldwide.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of IVF, Louise says she feels really privileged. “It’s amazing to think it all started off with mum and dad, Patrick and Bob. And it’s amazing that everyone’s keeping on their work, and the number of people they’ve helped – and more to come.”