New IVF exhibition at London’s Science Museum


Gallery views of “IVF: 6 Million Babies Later”. An exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the ‘miraculous’ birth of Louise Brown on 25 July 1978. The exhibition explores the ten years of testing, hundreds of failed attempts and many setbacks faced by Robert Edwards, Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy, in their quest to treat infertility and achieve the first successful IVF birth.

This morning I went to London’s Science Museum for the opening of a special IVF-themed exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of the birth of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby,.

Speaking at the launch of the exhibition – IVF: 6 Million Babies Later – Sally Cheshire CBE, Chair of the HFEA, paid tribute to the work of Professor Sir Robert Edwards, Dr Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy.

Sally said: “It is to these three people that we owe the most, for inventing in vitro fertilisation or IVF, persisting until it succeeded and allowing millions of patients to create their much longed-for families. Louise Brown’s birth 40 years ago was a defining moment in medicine and one that went on to have a huge impact on both the lives of individuals and society.”

The exhibition explores the remarkable story of IVF, from the opposition, uncertainty and challenges faced by the early pioneers, to the latest research in reproductive science today. Visitors will be able to see one of the ‘Oldham notebooks’, as they are known, that record the scientific data collected by Purdy and Edwards between 1969 and 1978, as well as examples of the equipment they used. Over 10 years, the notebooks recorded data for 282 anonymous women but only five pregnancies and two successful births.

The rest of the exhibition shows the worldwide media attention Louise’s birth brought to her family and what the future holds for scientific development and the millions of patients who experience fertility problems.

Sally adds: “There have been huge advancements in scientific research and medicine over the past 40 years and the UK remains at the forefront of scientific and clinical development in IVF. The 40th anniversary of Louise’s birth is a milestone and we can look forward to an exciting and challenging future as medicine and science allow more people to have the families they want.”

IVF: 6 Million Babies Later is free to visit and open daily from today until November 2018.

The story of the world’s first IVF baby

Louise_Back-cover-300x447I 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.

Louise Brown’s book

If you’ve had IVF, you will have heard of Louise Brown – the first ever IVF baby – and you will also be interested in a new book which chronicles Louise’s life. I was hugely disappointed to have to miss the launch of Louise’s book, held at Bourn Hall, the clinic set up by IVF pioneers Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe – but am really looking forward to reading her story in this new book.

In the book, Louise reveals what it was like to be the object of such fascination and media interest from the moment of her birth – and the impact it has had on her and her family. What has always struck me as being so lovely about Louise is that she appears to have been so remarkably unspoilt by what happened to her, and now lives a very un-starry life as a mother of two naturally conceived children of her own. And that’s despite the fact that as a baby she had toured Japan, the USA, Canada and Ireland clocking up 29,425 air miles before she was six months old! International media interest in the story was so intense that journalists camped at the hospital and outside the the family homefor weeks on end and the birth was featured on front pages worldwide. Church leaders and politicians entered into debates about her birth.

You can buy Louise’s book and find out more about her remarkable story direct from the publisher Bristol Books here 

Tree planting for world’s first IVF mum

BHC_TP_Group1_lowresLouise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, and her sister Natalie planted a tree today at the home of IVF – Bourn Hall Clinic – in memory of their parents.

IVF has become such a routine treatment today that we forget how incredible it was when Lesley Brown became pregnant with Louise – and how brave she was to undergo what was at the time an unproven and uncertain treatment to try to have the family she desired.

Both Louise and Natalie now have children of their own, conceived naturally, and for Lesley it was this continuation of the family that was so important as she explained in 2008.  She said then: “Being a grandparent was part of our dream. That’s the reason we wanted children, because we wanted a family. There would be no family without IVF. Now I have children and grandchildren and it’s wonderful. When I look at my grandchildren I just think how lucky I was that I was able to get the treatment.”

 Louise, who was 35 this summer, had her second son this year and named him Aiden  Patrick Robert after the men who made her life possible; gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and physiologist Robert Edwards.  Louise said: “When I was born many people said it shouldn’t be done and that it was messing with nature, but it worked and I think it was meant to be. Mum had to have IVF to have me but I didn’t need IVF to have my sons. It is just the beginning of life that’s a little bit different, the rest is just the same. Now IVF is well-established and the pioneers should be recognized for the way they have changed the world.”

Lesley Brown and her husband John had been trying to conceive for nine years when she was told by her doctor in Bristol that nothing more could be done for her. There was however a doctor in Oldham that might be able to help and that is when she first met Patrick Steptoe. Following the birth of the first couple of IVF babies, Steptoe and Edwards struggled to continue their groundbreaking work within the NHS and decided to set up their own clinic at Bourn Hall.  Lesley came for further treatment and became pregnant on her first attempt with Natalie who was born in 1982.





Happy birthday Louise!

It’s Louise Brown’s 35th birthday today and a celebration of 35 years of IVF – we’ve come along way since 1978 when in vitro fertilisation was an extraordinary scientific development rather than an everyday medical procedure.  I wrote an article about his for The Guardian,  and was pleased at the positive reactions from those who know about infertility and IVF – but saddned by at the comments left by many who don’t.

I know I’m always telling people not to read the comments left after articles on IVF because they do seem to spur some lunatic faction of anti-fertility treatment extremists into action, but I’d thought a feature on the history of IVF was pretty innocuous.  I should have known better.  There was the usual debate about over-population making it seem as if the world’s five million IVF babies are somehow the root cause of the world’s growing population, the old chestnut about adoption and the hundreds of tiny babies waiting to be adopted by couples who have selfishly ignored them in their desire to have a baby of their own accompanied by some wild and quite spurious claims about the effects of IVF.  Please don’t bother reading them – I’ve read them on your behalf…

It does mystify me though why so many people who clearly don’t know the first thing about fertility or treatment feel the need to comment so angrily.  What is it about IVF that makes them so cross?  And why is it that I have yet to meet a person in the real world who feels this way about infertility and treatment? Answers on a postcard please!  Or maybe not…


Professor Sir Robert Edwards

It was so sad to hear the news that Professor Sir Robert Edwards, the IVF pioneer, had died yesterday.  He was a truly lovely man, who had done so much to change the lives of those of us who live with infertility.  It was his determination and hard work that led to the birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978.

When he agreed to speak at National Infertility Day a few years ago, I was dispatched to interview him for Infertility Network UK.  I was nervous at the prospect of meeting someone whose work had changed my life so profoundly, but he was so charming and easy to talk to that my anxieties disappeared right away.  He genuinely cared about couples who were trying unsuccessfully to conceive in a way that is very rare among those who’ve had their own families without any trouble.

All of us who have experienced IVF have him to thank for the treatment that has given us hope – and many of us have him to thank for our families too.  You can read my tribute for The Guardian here