When Louise Joy Brown was born on July 25, 1978, she was a miracle to her parents, who had been trying for nine years to have a baby, and to millions watching from around the world.
The mid-1970s were a period of considerable frustration for English scientist Robert Edwards and his medical colleague Patrick Steptoe. The two men were trying to create the world’s first test tube baby. They had been able to achieve in vitro fertilization (IVF): in the laboratory, Edwards was able to fertilize the human eggs that Steptoe, a gynecologist and surgeon, had retrieved from female volunteers. But they had not been able to introduce the fertilized eggs into a woman’s womb for a successful IVF pregnancy. A similar effort in the U.S. had ended in disappointment, acrimony, and a lawsuit.
A New Approach
After nearly four years of unsuccessfully implanting human embryos in women’s uteruses, in 1975 Edwards and Steptoe witnessed their first pregnancy, but it proved ectopic and had to be terminated. Another two years passed without duplicating even that level of achievement, and, with Steptoe’s retirement scheduled for the summer on 1978, the duo were running out of time. The fertility drugs they had been employing resulted in multiple eggs ready to remove, but the embryos formed from these eggs seemed not to take after implantation. Edwards and Steptoe decided to abandon the drugs and focus on retrieving a single mature egg. It would require near perfect timing and exacting skill on Steptoe’s part, but they felt the new approach was worth a try. In their first group of patients was a 29-year-old named Lesley Brown.
When she met Steptoe in late 1976, Lesley Brown and her husband John had been trying to have a baby for the better part of a decade. He tended bar in the English town of Bristol and worked for the railroads; she weighed and packaged cheese in a factory. Their relationship had its ups and downs; Lesley, whose fallopian tubes were blocked, became depressed over her infertility, and John had a roving eye. “Find yourself a normal woman,” Lesley told him. “I’ve nothing to give our marriage now that I can’t have a child.” But John, who was raising a daughter from a previous marriage, stuck by her, and their infertility specialist referred them to Steptoe, who was doing something that seemed like science fiction to them. Just what that something was, Lesley and John couldn’t be sure; Steptoe spoke of fertilization and re-implantation, but they had no idea that his technique had never yet succeeded. Still, Lesley was willing to try. “Dear God,” she sometimes prayed, “I wouldn’t moan about being kept awake at night and washing dirty [diapers] if you’d let me have a child.”
An Eight-Cell Embryo
On November 10, 1977, Steptoe surgically removed an egg from Lesley Brown’s ovaries. Two nights later, after a dinner party for his wife’s birthday, Steptoe returned to his Oldham hospital and learned that the fertilized egg was now an eight-cell embryo, which he then implanted into his patient’s uterus. In December, Edwards and Steptoe were delighted to discover that Lesley Brown was pregnant.
Nothing had prepared the Browns for the media onslaught that hit them when she was six months pregnant and reporters learned of the baby’s existence. All of a sudden Lesley, who had registered in the hospital under an assumed name, couldn’t go home; reporters offered thousands of pounds for information, and one journalist even phoned in a fake bomb threat to force the patients out of their beds and into the street. The Browns shielded themselves somewhat by making an exclusive deal with one British tabloid for the rights to their story, reportedly netting hundreds of thousands of dollars. The tabloid used nine cars as decoys, John lying down in the back of one as it went to the Oldham hospital, and he stayed with the mother of one of the tabloid’s photographers.
A Perfect Baby
As the end of July and Brown’s due date approached, Steptoe needed to take extreme precautions to make sure the birth itself would not become a three-ring circus. Concerned about the baby’s small size, Steptoe arranged a late-night Caesarean section delivery on July 25. He sent John home from the hospital at the usual time, then had him summoned by telephone a few hours later. At 11:47pm, a five pound, 12 ounce baby was born. Steptoe would recall that he “laid her down, all pink and furious, and saw at once that she was externally perfect and beautiful.” Her parents named the world’s first test tube baby Louise Joy Brown, with Steptoe and his wife suggesting the middle name. “I doubt if I shall ever share such a moment in my life again,” he said. Little Louise would later be joined by younger sister Natalie, also a test tube baby, and on May 13, 1999, just before Louise’s 21st birthday, Natalie gave birth to a daughter, Casey, making her the first test tube baby to herself become a mother.