Things I didn't know about the world's first IVF baby

What was it like to be the world's first? Charming and alarming details from Louise Brown's autobiography.

The memories are vague, but I definitely recall the birth of the world's first "test-tube baby," Louise Brown. At the time it felt like science fiction, but during my lifetime, in vitro fertilization (IVF) has become positively ordinary. Several kids on my street — and no doubt on yours as well — would not be here without it. 

Still, imagine my thrill when @LouiseJoyBrown followed @HeyReprotech on Twitter a few years ago! I immediately followed her back. The famous baby was about to turn 40 and she was writing a book. 

I have finally read that book. Below, some details that stick with me.

*

Louise Brown (and Martin Powell). My Life as the World's First Test-tube Baby. 2018.

Ordinary people

I'm not sure why, but I found some of the details of her parents' early lives surprising. Because it's so expensive, I think of IVF as mainly a treatment for the well-off, so it is somehow noteworthy that the first couple in the world to have a baby by IVF were not wealthy at all. 

Louise's mom, Lesley, left school at age 14.

She worked in an underwear factory, until she was sacked for not showing up.

Louise's dad, John, also left school at age 14. 

By age 21, John was married (to someone else) and had two daughters.

When the marriage ended, one of those daughters was adopted and the other was placed in foster care.

Lesley and John met in a pub when she was 16 and he was 22. They ran away together, and for a few weeks slept rough on a train.

Eventually, they went on welfare and got housing. 

After John got a job, they got one of his daughters back, simply by calling the foster home and saying he was back together with his wife.

After getting married, they tried for a baby for ten years. 

For their IVF treatment, they had to travel 180 miles from Bristol, where they lived, to Oldham, where their fertility appointments were. They couldn't afford to stay the night, so they went there and back all in one day.

Even during the latter stages, when Lesley was in hospital awaiting the birth, John slept in the car to save money.

Extraordinary experimental treatment

What continues to shock me is how much was done without Lesley Brown's truly informed consent.

It wasn't until well into her pregnancy that Lesley realized the technique had never been successful in a human before.

The pregnancy confirmation came by quaint note through the mail.

Another woman was on track to be the first to have a baby by IVF, but she had a miscarriage.

Lesley smoked heavily throughout the pregnancy.

When Lesley was admitted to hospital in advance of the birth, she used a fake name, "Rita Ferguson," to try to keep the news quiet.

The scheduled birth had to be kept secret, even from the nurses. On the appointed day, Lesley's uneaten food had to be smuggled out so no one got suspicious that the birth was imminent.

Louise was born by C-section just minutes before midnight on July 25, 1978.

The birth was filmed

Louise underwent 12 days of testing after her birth, to confirm that she was healthy. 

Lesley went on to become the first woman to have two babies by IVF.  Louise's sister Natalie — the world's 40th IVF baby — was born June 30, 1982. Two years later, Lesley tried unsuccessfully for a third child. 

Natalie was the first person born via IVF to have a child herself — conceived naturally and born in 1999, when Natalie was 16 years old. 

Louise went on to have two naturally-conceived children.

Media frenzy

The family became unwitting celebrities. I can't imagine what it must have been like for the new mother to be trapped in her home for weeks. Not to mention, journalists should never pay sources.  

IVF was such a big deal that some papers had a reporter on the story full-time in the months before Louise's birth.

Journalists tried to sneak into the hospital where Lesley would give birth.

Louise's dad, the IVF doctors and a lawyer together cut an exclusive deal with the Daily Mail newspaper. Lesley was not consulted. 

The family got approximately £60,000 for the various parts of their exclusive story, providing Louise was not "significantly malformed or mentally retarded." In return, they had to avoid all interviews and photographs with other outlets.

That wasn't easy. So the Daily Mail posted a guard at Lesley and John's house to keep other media away. They were "virtual prisoners in their own home." 

Louise estimates that in the first ten years, the family earned £110,000 from the story of her birth.

Ordinary people again

Her beginnings were so extraordinary, but Louise has somehow been able to live an ordinary life. I find this heartening. 

Over the years, Louise worked at Burger King and Asda; later, she worked as a childcare worker and a letter carrier; now she works at a shipping company.

Through her agent, I asked her if she ever wished she hadn't been the first, but maybe the second or third born via IVF. 

"I have never known anything different... It is true that I get more attention than the others and I’m comfortable with it. It has enabled me to travel all around the world and to meet people that I would never have met. When I was a teenager I went through a phase of thinking 'why me?' but I think that was just a normal teenage thing of not wanting to grow up in the spotlight."

I asked about her mother, too. Did she think her mother would have preferred to raise her daughter without all the fanfare?

"My mum would definitely not have wanted all the fuss. She was a shy and modest lady and hated the media fuss and just wanted to be left alone with her baby that she had craved for so many years. 

"Thankfully, in personality I am more like my father who enjoyed talking to people and was more outgoing and liked the media attention. I didn’t get a choice and now I think I may as well enjoy the opportunities that my birth brought, rather than be fighting it all the time."

*

Related links

Video of Louise Brown's birth on YouTube.

Article in Mosaic about growing up as the first IVF baby.

Recent article about the woman who is currently the world's oldest woman, at age 74, to undergo IVF.

Great piece about IVF in frogs.

A thorough, objective and fascinating read about the origins of IVF:

Robin Marantz Henig. Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution. 2004.

*

Email me at alison.motluk@gmail.com. 

Follow @HeyReprotech and @AlisonMotluk on Twitter.

To read previous HeyReprotech stories, go to the archive.