Happy 40th Birthday, Louise Brown, the World’s First IVF Baby

Happy Birthday

Forty years ago, Louise Brown was born on July 25. She was the first so-called “test tube baby,” born through in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In a Daily Mail article, they noted that Louise first “met” her husband when she was just  a few days old, when he was one of the people who was a well-wisher at her home. Her husband, Wesley Mullinder, was then eight years old, and he had followed the crowd from nearby where he lived with his parents. They met later in adulthood, when Brown was 24.

Brown said to the Daily Mail, “About a year into our relationship my husband told me he had been there after I was born, which was quite weird. It was only when we met years and years later that I found out he lived across the road from my family home at the time. There was so much press interest, with 100 journalists at the door, and lots of children just wanted to see what was going on. He was among the group.”

It’s a little difficult to believe the level of interest—and controversy—then for a procedure that is commonplace today. Her mother, Lesley Brown, hadn’t been able to conceive naturally as the result of blocked Fallopian tubes. She had been trying to conceive for nine years when she signed up for IVF, which was an experimental procedure at the time. She was one of 282 women who tried the procedure. At that time, doctors attempted 457 egg collections, but only 167 cycles led to fertilization. From 12 embryos that were successfully implanted, five became pregnant. Louise was the only live birth.

Louise’s sister Natalie was the fortieth IVF baby.

Approximately six million children have been born via IVF in the last forty years. In fact, in many countries, three to six percent of all children are conceived via IVF.

IVF is a procedure where an egg is harvested from the woman and sperm from the man is introduced to the egg in a petri dish. Once fertilized, the egg is inserted into the woman’s womb. At that point, if everything goes well, the pregnancy continues normally.

Louise, who has two children of her own, was born in 1978 at Oldham General Hospital. The treatment, which was widely controversial at the time, is generally accepted, although any controversy surrounding it aside from fringe groups is related to payment for the procedure. Many payers and insurers don’t cover IVF and because the procedure can cost anywhere from about $3000 to $12,000—with the first “fresh” cycle usually running at the top of that price range and the lower for subsequent cycles—it can sometimes be seen as a healthcare procedure for wealthy people.

In a recent article in The Observer, Philip Ball cited seven ways IVF changed the world. They include normalizing in vitro fertilization, putting the UK at the forefront of embryology, leading to a deeper understanding of human reproduction, setting the stage for stem cell research, emphasizing genetic screening, providing a new perspective on human conception, and launching a new debate about the moral status of the embryo.

The original work—which led to Louise Brown’s birth—was conducted by Cambridge physiologist Robert Edwards and obstetrician Patrick Steptoe. Ball wrote, “The pair faced immense opposition. Eminent biologists and doctors, including Nobel laureates, dismissed their work as scientifically worthless, unnecessary and ethically questionable, and the Medical Research Council would not fund it.”

But history has a way of revising itself. In 2010, Edwards was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine or physiology for his work. Unfortunately for Steptoe, he died in 1988 before the honor could be bestowed upon him.

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