35 years of IVF celebrated by the first ‘test-tube’ baby at Bourn Hall Clinic

July 25, 2013

The world’s first test tube baby, Louise Brown, celebrated 35 years of IVF by unveiling a plaque to commemorate the work of pioneers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards at the fertility clinic they founded at Bourn Hall in Cambridge,UK.

The partnership of gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and reproductive biologist Robert (Bob) Edwards achieved one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time, the successful fertilisation of a human egg outside of the body and the transfer of the resulting embryo to the womb. Their work gave childless couples the hope of a baby for the first time and has resulted in 5.5 million IVF babies worldwide.

The plaque was unveiled by Louise jointly with Alastair MacDonald – the world’s first IVF baby boy – and his mother, Grace. Also in attendance were Professor Edwards’ wife Ruth, his daughter Jenny and staff from Bourn Hall who worked with Steptoe and Edwards as they translated what was essentially a research programme into a robust clinical practice. The techniques and drugs now used worldwide were first developed in the British clinic.

Bob’s daughter Jenny remembers the time before Louise was born.

“When dad first started working on this, years before Louise was born, infertility really wasn’t taken that seriously. There was a lot of criticism to overcome and a lot of science to do.

“He believed that there was nothing more important in the world than having a child. He was very fortunate to have a family of five daughters and he believed what he was doing was right.

“There could not be a greater legacy than over five million IVF babies. Dad would smile every time a new one was born because he knew that there was nothing more important than family.

“Father of IVF was a name he so justly deserved and that is how he would like to be remembered.”

Louise, now married and with a naturally-conceived child of her own, talks about life as the world’s first IVF baby.

“When I was born they all said it shouldn’t be done and that it was messing with nature, but it worked and I think it was meant to be.

 “It is difficult to say what it is like to be the first test-tube baby as I have been brought up with it. People ask what it feels like, but it’s just always been there; it’s my life.”

“Mum [Lesley Brown] used to say that without having children you don’t have the opportunity to have grandchildren and see them grow up, so it all carries on doesn’t it. Bob has helped peopled that don’t even realise he’s helped them.  

“Mum had to have IVF to have me but I didn’t need IVF to have my son. So just because people have IVF doesn’t mean that it has to follow down the line. Of all those [IVF babies] that I know, they have all conceived naturally. That shows that it is just the beginning of life that’s a little bit different, the rest is just the same.”

Grace MacDonald got in touch with Steptoe and Edwards after she had read their research paper in the Lancet and volunteered, like hundreds of other women, to take part in their work. She was sworn to secrecy – such was the media interest at the time – and only told her close family about the treatment.

“It is devastating to be told that you cannot have children, I had planned my whole future around it. To me, Bob and Patrick were almost the most important people in my life for what they did for us and for the kindness and interest they always showed. I would encourage women going through treatment now to keep positive and keep the spark alive. Having a son is everything I ever wished for.”

Mike Macnamee, CEO of Bourn Hall, joined Edwards and Steptoe at Bourn Hall to help develop the IVF therapy and the fertility treatments that are now used to improve control of the natural cycle and boost egg maturity.

“Anybody working in the field of reproductive biology knew about the birth of Louise Brown and the really exciting work that Bob was doing. I joined in 1984 because I wanted to be part of that development, and both Bob and Patrick were both really inspirational leaders in our development of IVF as it is today.”

“The last 35 years has seen an enormous improvement in success rates. In the early 80s there was around a 10% chance of success and now it is near 50%. 

“Another major breakthrough was the discovery that you can take a single sperm, put it directly into an egg and achieve embryo development and healthy children as a result. This technique is called ICSI and it has allowed thousands of men affected by male factor infertility to become parents.

“More recent developments include the video monitoring of developing embryos which is giving us new and exciting insights.

“Bob was one of our greatest scientists and it was a privilege to work with him and to continue to achieve his dream of making IVF more accessible to all who need it.”

Dr Thomas Matthews, Medical Director at Bourn Hall worked with Steptoe in the early days; he remembers that without the benefit of ultrasound to monitor egg development, they needed to take hormone measurements at regular intervals.

“It was a very exciting time in those early days because IVF was very new. All of us as gynaecologists had heard about this procedure, read about it in the medical journals and it was fascinating to come here and see the procedure being done, and to meet all the patients who were here from all over the world.

“Patrick was an old fashioned gynaecologist. He was passionate about his patients and treated them extremely well. He took very detailed histories from them, examined them thoroughly, and he was very honest with them about their chances of conception.

“Patrick was a stickler for doing things correctly, and newcomers like myself had to learn the procedure by watching him for a long, long time. In fact, when I joined here in 1984, it was almost a year before he actually let me do a procedure myself!

“Today we try to maintain the work here exactly as Steptoe would have liked us to maintain it. Of course we have moved on with some of the treatment options we offer patients; but the spirit of the treatment and the ethos of what we do remains in the ethos of what Patrick Steptoe wanted in the early days.”

Steptoe passed away on 21st March 1988, just after the birth of Bourn Hall’s 1000th baby.  Edwards, who died this April, played an important role in both Louise and Alastair’s lives.

Alastair MacDonald says:

“My early memories of Professor Edwards, when I was growing up, are of a very kind, caring, honest, very human person. Maybe slightly eccentric, but in such a fun, genuine way. You could not honestly meet a nicer man.

“I remember being sat in his car and he was demonstrating his air conditioning system to me, which was both back windows wide open and me being blown about in the back. He had a great, down to earth sense of humour and I was always in complete awe of him to be honest.”

Back in those early days, IVF technology was considered highly controversial and no public funding was available.  Fortunately times have changed and Bourn Hall Clinic now treats over 3000 couples a year in the UK including many patients whose treatment is NHS funded.

See our video tribute to our founders http://youtu.be/GZzgG0lDDyQ


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"And here she is ...the lovely Louise"
Public announcement of the birth of the first IVF baby, Daily Mail 27th July 1978

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