When Lesley Brown’s first child was born, there was no need to send out announcements. The news was blared on front pages around the world: “OUR MIRACLE,” “BABY OF THE CENTURY,” “IT’S A GIRL.”
On July 25, 1978, Brown, a young woman from a working-class English town, gave birth to the first baby conceived outside the womb. Baby Louise Joy became a focus of international fascination as the first so-called test-tube baby, produced through in-vitro fertilization, a technique that raised moral and medical alarms 34 years ago but is commonplace today because of the more than 4 million women who have followed in Brown’s steps.
Brown died June 6 in Bristol, England, after a short illness, British media reported after her funeral last week. She was 64.
She and her truck driver-husband, John, had struggled to conceive a baby for nine years until they met British biologist Robert G. Edwardsand Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist. She had undergone a series of operations that failed to unblock her fallopian tubes, the cause of her inability to become pregnant. The 30-year-old woman was otherwise healthy, making her a good candidate for the experimental procedures the two men had been developing for years. They had produced one pregnancy before Brown’s, but it was ectopic, meaning the fertilized egg developed outside the womb and could not survive.
With the aid of a thin viewing tube called a laparoscope, Steptoe and Edwards harvested one of Brown’s eggs and fertilized it in the laboratory using her husband’s sperm. They kept the fertilized egg alive in a glass dish containing a solution of special nutrients. Two-and-a-half days later they implanted it in Brown’s uterus.
Her pregnancy proceeded normally — until word got out that conception had been anything but normal. Reporters from as far away as Japan descended on the Browns’ neighborhood and at their hospital in Oldham.
For the last month of her pregnancy, she took refuge in the hospital’s maternity ward, trying to avoid the reporters and photographers who disguised themselves as janitors, boiler men and hospital administrators to snag a shot or interview with the first in-vitro mother-to-be.
News coverage was filled with purloined details about her diet, her dress, her emotional state. Medical experts were quoted warning about possible abnormalities in any child born of such unorthodox means. Ethicists invoked Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” theorizing about the potential for abuse or misuse of the controversial new technique. Religious leaders said in-vitro technology was not in God’s plan.
For Brown, however, there was never any question that she would take Edwards’ and Steptoe’s help.
“When you’ve been through a lot of treatment over the years … then any chance you get that someone’s going to help you, you take it with both hands,” she told the Associated Press years later.
Baby Louise was delivered a few weeks early by Caesarean section because Brown had developed toxemia, a disorder that can lead to stillbirth. The delivery proceeded uneventfully, ending with the most normal kind of drama: The 5 pound 12 ounce newborn “came out crying her head off … a beautiful, normal baby,” Steptoe told Time magazine, which heralded the event on its cover.
Four years later, in 1982, Brown made history again with the birth of her second child. Daughter Natalie was the world’s 40th “test-tube” baby and Brown the first woman to have two children through the in-vitro method. In both instances, she became pregnant on her first try.
Brown’s husband died in 2007. She is survived by her daughters and several grandchildren.