I was on holiday in Suffolk last week where we had a couple of typically English summer days – grey skies and endless rain… So I had some time to read Louise Brown’s autobiography about her life as the world’s first IVF baby. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in IVF, which seems such an everyday treatment now but was utterly extraordinary at the time.
Louise’s parents, Lesley and John Brown, had no idea of the media maelstrom they’d face when they signed up for an experimental new treatment which they were told might help them have a longed-for baby. Louise tells about their early lives and sometimes troubled days before they settled down together – and how a football pools win helped them to pay for the fertility treatment that IVF pioneers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards were trying. The couple had to travel regularly from their home in Bristol to the clinic in Oldham where Steptoe and Edwards were based, and Lesley Brown didn’t appreciate until she was pregnant that her baby would be the first to be born from IVF treatment, having assumed that others had gone before her.
Once the successful pregnancy had been announced, there was a frenzy of activity from the media with journalists trying to track down the couple who were about to have a baby using this groundbreaking technique. Indeed, the focus of much of the rest of the book is about the madness of the media frenzy at the time of Louise’s birth and during her early days. An ordinary working clas couple, Lesley and John were suddenly plunged into a world of TV interviews and international travel – and then faced criticism for “cashing in” on their daughter’s birth, often from journalists who hadn’t been given access to the family.
This media interest has followed Louise throughout her life – and you can fully understand how weary she and her family became of being asked for their views on every IVF story going, and for the media scrutiny which comes with every significant birthday or the birth of Louise’s own children (she is a mother of two naturally-conceived children).
What is very touching about Louise’s story is her affection for the doctors who helped her parents conceive, and her continuing close friendship with Robert Edwards right through until his death in 2013 (Patrick Steptoe had died many years earlier), and her closeness with Alastair Montgomery, the world’s first IVF boy, and his mother “Auntie” Grace; a small community bound together by the roles they all played in the history of IVF.
Louise’s book gives a unique view of the early days of IVF – and a fascinating insight into what it is like for an ordinary family to be at the centre of a media storm. You can buy it online from the publisher Bristol Books here.
This is the story of an ordinary family who were at the centre of an incredible scientific development – one which has transformed the world for so many others. There may now be more than five million people born this way – but each one is a new miracle for the parents who have waited to conceive.