On International Women's Day we remember Lesley Brown, mother of the world’s first “test-tube baby” – through her courage and determination IVF treatment has become accepted, bringing hope to childless couples.
The birth of Louise Brown has been ranked alongside the moon landing as one of the most significant events of the 20th century. It was the catalyst for techniques that have revolutionised fertility treatment.
It was also life-changing for her mum Lesley (1947-2012), a working-class woman from a deprived area of Bristol, who wanted a baby more than anything in the world.
It was by a twist of fate that Lesley and her husband John Brown became the first couple in the world to have successful IVF treatment.
Dr Mike Macamee, CEO of Bourn Hall Clinic, which was established after Lesley had her baby, remembers her well: “Lesley was a devoted mum and grandmother and through her bravery many millions of women worldwide have been given the chance to become mothers. She was a lovely gentle lady and we will all remember her with deep affection.”
On International Women’s Day we remember Lesley and all the other women before her who volunteered their eggs and their time to help develop IVF treatment and give others a chance of a baby.
Against all odds
Lesley grew up in one of the roughest parts of Bristol; she never knew her father and was brought up mostly by her grandparents. By all accounts she was a handful, and when her grandmother found her too much to cope with it was suggested that she and her brother David emigrated to Australia to provide child labour for the farms. 100,000 children went at that time. Fortunately, she didn’t pass the assessment and went to live with an aunt. She left school at 14 and got work in a local factory.
Lesley met John when she was 16. She went to live with him in an old railway carriage until they were found and evicted. He managed to get regular work and they could afford a room and eventually a house. After six years they married and started trying for a baby. After 10 years of trying tests revealed Lesley had blocked tubes and would never get pregnant.
Lesley was devastated and became depressed. To give her some hope she was referred to Bristol Central Health Clinic, where she met medical officer Dr Rosalin Hinton, who had heard of the work of Patrick Steptoe in Oldham, trying to find a treatment for women with blocked tubes. Dr Hinton said the treatment was like ‘science fiction’ and offered a ‘million to one chance’ of success. The doctor wrote to Steptoe and he agreed to treat Lesley.
Lesley was one of many women who found their way to Kershaw’s Cottage Hospital near Oldham in the hope that work by Patrick Steptoe, Robert Edwards and Jean Purdy would result in a treatment for infertility. Records show that there were 64 embryo transfers between 1971 and 1977. Lesley Brown remembered meeting these other dedicated women, including one who was the first to become pregnant but sadly lost the baby. She said that as each woman was told the treatment had failed and went home without a baby, she cried at their sadness.
Successful first time
Lesley kept forever the letter from Professor Robert Edwards that gave her the good news. “Just a short note to let you know that the early results on your blood and urine are very encouraging and indicate that you might be in early pregnancy. So please take things quietly – no skiing, climbing or anything too strenuous including Xmas shopping!”
The techniques perfected at Bourn Hall have led to the birth of over 6 million babies worldwide and IVF is now widely accepted as fertility treatment.
It is hard now to believe just how miraculous the first birth had been. In July 1978 when Louise was born, the new technique generated deep moral and ethical questions. International media interest in the story was so intense that journalists camped at the hospital and outside the Brown’s house for weeks on end. Lesley was smuggled into a ‘safe house’ to give her some peace and the birth was featured on front pages worldwide.
Church leaders and politicians entered into debates about Louise’s birth.
As the first mother of an IVF baby Lesley toured Japan, the USA, Canada and Ireland – the kind of world tour only seen previously by international pop stars – clocking up 29,425 air miles before her baby Louise was six months old. Lesley and John then returned to their modest life in Bristol.
World’s first IVF clinic
It was following their success with the birth of Louise – and second IVF baby Alastair MacDonald – that the pioneers established the world’s first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall, Cambridge, which is celebrating 40 years in 2020.
When Louise was two, Lesley mentioned to Patrick Steptoe that she would like another baby. She was so modest that she felt she didn’t deserve to have another as she had been so fortunate – she felt others should get priority. But Patrick welcomed her to the clinic for another treatment and again she was successful first time and gave birth to her second daughter, Natalie.
Louise has chronicled her life story in an autobiography, “My life as the world’s first test tube baby”, which tells the story of her mother’s quest to have a baby and of her own life growing up in the media spotlight – including her lifelong connection with the IVF community.
Lesley died at the Bristol Royal Infirmary on 6th June 2012 following a short illness.
Mike Macnamee says: “Louise’s story is a tribute to the pioneers of IVF and to her parents Lesley and John Brown. The marvel of her birth shows what extraordinary things determined people can achieve. We at Bourn Hall feel privileged to have known Lesley and to have shared so many milestones in Louise’s life.”