A 5-lb., 12-oz. girl named Louise is born in the Oldham General Hospital near Manchester, England. There’s nothing unusual about how little Louise looks, but she is a very special baby—the first human born after being conceived through in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
Her parents, Lesley and John Brown, had been trying for nine years to have a baby, but Leslie couldn’t get pregnant because her Fallopian tubes were blocked. Her gynecologist, Dr. Patrick Steptoe, had introduced the Browns to a doctor named Robert Edwards, with whom he had been working on a revolutionary procedure that could allow a woman’s egg to be fertilized outside her body.
But they too had met with failure after failure. They had already tried the procedure more than 80 times, and while it had resulted in some pregnancies, none had lasted longer than a few weeks. Edwards had been studying artificial means of human fertilization since the early 1960s, and while he had been able to fertilize a human egg in his laboratory in 1969, he had struggled to get support for his research.
The British government had rejected his request for funding in 1971, taking the position that the procedure should first be perfected on primates. Critics said he would create babies with birth defects. And when Edwards asked gynecologists for ovarian tissue he could use, many turned him down flatly. Several described his research as “preposterous.”
But with the help of private funding, Edwards and Steptoe, a pioneer in laparoscopy, kept refining the IVF process. When Steptoe had asked the Browns if they wanted to try the technique, they agreed—although they weren’t told how many times it already had failed. Louise Brown would be described as the world’s first ”test-tube baby,” but she actually was conceived in a petri dish.
Lesley Brown made it through the pregnancy and daughter Louise, delivered through Cesarean section, was normal and healthy. Later, researchers would say that if Louise had been born with any defects, it likely would have pushed back the development of IVF for decades. Even so, the doctors came under much criticism for what they had done. Pope John Paul, prior to becoming pope, expressed concern that IVF could result in women becoming “baby factories.”
Four years later, the Browns had another IVF baby, a daughter named Natalie. And in 1999, she became the first person born through IVF to have a baby of her own, albeit one conceived naturally. Louise Brown had her own baby in 2006, a son named Cameron, also conceived naturally.
Robert Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2010, an honor criticized by the Catholic Church. The following year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He died at the age of 87 in April, 2013.
Since Louise Brown’s birth that July evening, more than 5 million other IVF babies have been born.
More Slices of History
Kissing Banned: July 16, 1439
Seat Belt Patented: July 10, 1962
U.S. Shifts on Mental Health: July 3, 1946
Dancing Hysteria: June 23, 1374
1st Kidney Transplant: June 17, 1950