Meet Louise Brown, The First Baby Ever Conceived Via In Vitro Fertilization

In vitro fertilization, also known as IVF, is commonplace. Worldwide, about 350,000 IVF babies are born every year. But do you ever wonder when and how the test tube baby phenomenon started?

In 1978, Louise Brown became the first baby born through in vitro fertilization. Back then, IVF babies were somewhat impolitely referred to as test-tube babies. Fertility pioneers Patrick Steptoe, Robert Edwards, and Jean Purdy made Brown's birth possible, though. Since their initial groundbreaking procedure, over six million children have been born through IVF. As with any innovative scientific discovery, however, there was a lot of backlash to the modulated birth, especially from the Catholic community. And much of the anger was directed at Brown and her family.

The Brown family pressed on in spite of the naysayers, and Louise eventually became an outspoken advocate for IVF.

  • Louise Brown's Parents Tried To Conceive For Nearly A Decade

    Louise Brown's Parents Tried To Conceive For Nearly A Decade
    Photo: stickwithjosh / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Lesley and John Brown tried to conceive for nine years before finally welcoming Louise on July 25, 1978. Lesley couldn't conceive naturally because she had blocked fallopian tubes. And after all the failed pregnancy attempts, she even developed depression. But thanks to British gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, scientist Robert Edwards, and embryologist Jean Purdy, Lesley’s dream came true. 

    In November 1977, the doctors successfully removed one of Lesley’s eggs and fertilized it with John’s sperm in an incubator. The fertilized egg was then transplanted into Lesley’s uterus, and the world’s first test tube baby was officially conceived.

    Four years later, the Browns welcomed their second IVF child, Natalie.

  • People Doubted IVF Babies Would Be Able To Conceive As Adults

    People Doubted IVF Babies Would Be Able To Conceive As Adults
    Photo: ZEISS Microscopy / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    It was widely assumed that women born from in vitro fertilization would be infertile. People also thought that IVF babies would need the test-tube procedure when they wanted to conceive. But the Brown family proved all of that speculation was completely baseless. 

    In 1999, Louise's little sister, Natalie, became the first IVF woman to give birth to a child. She did it the old-fashioned way, quelling many of those unfounded beliefs. Natalie's baby was entirely healthy.

  • The Family Received Blood-Spattered Hate Mail

    The Brown family received a lot of hate mail in the months and years following Louise's extraordinary birth. Many people morally objected to artificially conceived children; they took their anger out on the unsuspecting family. In Louise's autobiography, Louise Brown: My Life as the World’s First Test-Tube Baby, she described some of the disgusting parcels her family received in the mail.

    There was a jewelry box with a sticker of some baby footprints in one package. Louise's mother, Lesley, thought it was a congratulatory gift; unfortunately, it was far from it. Louise noted:

    When she opened it, there was red liquid that looked as if it had spilled and a carefully folded letter. [The letter was accompanied by a] test tube baby warranty card.

  • People Told The Brown Family To Keep Louise In A Toilet

    Some of the mail the Brown family received was absolutely sickening. In one package, the sender enclosed a booklet with a hateful Q&A outlining what parents should do with a test-tube baby. Louise shared

    There was one suggesting that you could keep a test-tube baby in a toilet bowl or fish tank... It was menacing and scary and considering the time the people must have taken in putting this thing together then sending it across the world to a three-month-old baby I would say a completely sick act by some sick minds.

  • The Family Was Scared To Take Louise Outside

    As a result of the media attention, Louise Brown’s parents were easily identifiable. A lot of people responded negatively to the birth, so Louise's mother, Lesley, was always frightened. She didn't even want to take her baby out in public.

    In her autobiography, Louise commented on her mom's sense of fear:

    Imagine how worrying this was for mum. For a while she was even more careful when taking me out in the pram.

  • The Family Also Received Some Positive Feedback

    Despite the multitude of threatening and hateful messages the Browns received via mail, many people also reached out to congratulate the family on Louise’s arrival. The majority of the positive letters were from women suffering with fertility issues. One woman from Australia wrote

    I fear that you will find yourselves on the receiving end of all the usual criticism and condemnation that follows any medical breakthrough, so am writing to try in a tiny way to even things up.”

    Although many people were horrified by the prospect of in vitro fertilization, countless others were inspired and encouraged by it.