Forty years ago, the thought of conceiving human babies via in vitro fertilisation (IVF) was unimaginable. That was, until the birth of Louise Brown, who celebrated her landmark birthday on Wednesday.
Born on July 25, 1978, Louise Brown was the first person to be successfully conceived in a laboratory, and the first baby to be born via IVF. Her parents, Leslie and John Brown, had been trying to conceive for nine years before they tried IVF – an experimental procedure that hundreds of women had unsuccessfully tried between 1968 and 1978.
When Louise was born, she became an instant symbol of hope for couples all across the world, and she remains a global inspiration today. But she is humble about her life story, saying in an interview, “I didn’t do anything – I was just born. People come up to me and say, ‘without you I wouldn’t have any children’. But I take all the thanks on behalf of my mum now.”
Louise is also quick to credit the researchers who pioneered IVF – scientists Robert Edwards and Jean Purdy, and surgeon Patrick Steptoe. Before her birth, the trio were ridiculed for their experiments, with even their fellow scientists criticising their work. They had so little funding that they had to work in a makeshift laboratory in Oldham, Manchester, along with nurses who volunteered their time to care for their patients and dig out second-hand equipment for the researchers to use.
Thankfully, they stuck it out, and over 6.5 million babies have now been born via IVF; including Louise’s younger sister, Natalie, who became the world’s 40th IVF baby when she was born in 1982. Having a sibling who was also born via the procedure took a lot of pressure off Brown, who grew up under the magnifying glass of the world’s media attention.
“My sister and I used to do a lot together, and it took some of the focus off of me,” Brown says with a grin. “Media attention can be quite nerve-wracking sometimes, especially when you’re little and there’s lots of cameras. It’s still quite daunting for me now! So it was nice that I could share it with her, so it wasn’t just me.”
Natalie went on to become the world’s first IVF baby to naturally conceive her own child (Louise has also since conceived two children naturally), making the Brown family one of many incredible firsts. But Louise and Natalie’s mother, Leslie, found the media attention difficult.
“My mum was quiet and shy, she hated talking to anybody,” Louise says. “But that was part of the price she paid to have me.”
So what was it like growing up as the world’s first IVF baby? “My life is normal,” insists Louise. “It’s just like everybody else’s, but with the added press and media on special occasions. But what’s normal for me might be completely different to what’s normal for someone else.” However, she sometimes feels like she has two identities, going by the name ‘Louise Brown’ for anything related to IVF, and using her married name for anything else.
Louise says that she first found out about her birth when she was four years and her parents sat her down to explain IVF to her. They also showed her the video of her birth, her mum had a planned Caesarean section. “I didn’t really take it in,” she says, adding that the video “wasn’t very child-friendly”. “I think it probably scarred me, actually,” she laughs.
Louise also says that she is very much like her dad in that she takes the attention that comes hand-in-hand with being the world’s first IVF baby all in her stride. “I grew up with it, so I never really felt any different,” she says. And when asked if she was treated like a celebrity at school, she admits that her friends used to like her story and that sometimes they would say, ‘I saw you on TV!’
She is also still recognised today, and describes a moving moment when a woman who had just given birth in a clinic in Bulgaria that she was visiting came up to her and gave her a hug. “She came up to me saying ‘thank you, thank you’ and it made me want to cry. It was quite emotional,” Louise remembers.
Aside from all this attention, Louise and her family have also received countless letters, cards and gifts throughout her lifetime, with over 400 items flooding into the family home by the time she was brought home from hospital aged just 11 days old.
“I’d hate to think how many there have been in total,” she laughs. “My mum used to stick the cards and letters in a scrap book and I would go through them all. Obviously I couldn’t read them when I was little but most of them were just really nice – people would write to mum to say she had given them hope because they were having fertility problems, or just send well wishes.”
Louise’s birth was such a landmark moment that it would be difficult to find anyone alive at the time who was unaware of it – least of all her husband, Wesley. The pair had been together a few months before Wesley twigged that Louise was the world’s first IVF baby, he’s eight years older than her, so could remember the attention that her birth received.
Amazingly, he had lived across the road from Louise’s parents, and had been standing in the crowds outside their house when they brought Louise home from the hospital.
“You know what children are like – they see a big crowd and think, ‘what’s going on there?’” Louise says of the bizarre coincidence.
“We met about 26 years after that,” she continues. “It was a bit surreal, a bit weird.”
The pair went on to marry in 2004 and Robert Edwards, who Louise affectionately calls ‘Bob’, attended their wedding. He is the only one of the original IVF pioneers who is still alive and has since been awarded a Nobel Prize for their achievements. Sadly, Patrick Steptoe died when Louise was 10, and Jean Purdy died when Louise was seven.
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