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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 realise” 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 foetus 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 recognised 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.”

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1 comment:

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