The Bluffer’s Guide to test tube babies with Paul Donnelley

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Today marks the 41st birthday of Louise Brown, the world’s first test tube baby, Here is some paediatric trivia.

It was the pioneering work of Professor Patrick Steptoe, Sir Robert Edwards and nurse Jean Purdy that resulted in the first IVF baby.

Steptoe relaxed by playing music by Beethoven and Schubert on the piano.

After being demobbed from the Army, Edwards studied agriculture at the University of Bangor in North Wales before changing to zoology in his last year in 1951.

Steptoe was an obstetrician and gynaecologist; Edwards was a physiologist and Purdy the nurse who was the first to see the embryonic cells dividing.

Edwards discovered how to mature human eggs suitable for IVF in 1965 while working at Cambridge University.

In 1970, Edwards and Steptoe retrieved eggs from infertile women for the first time using keyhole surgery.

In April 1971, they applied for a grant to open the first clinic to treat infertility by in vitro fertilisation. The appeal was refused because “infertility should not be treated because the world is overpopulated”.

Much of the funding was supplied by Lillian Lincoln Howell, a television executive and amateur poet from California who died at the age of 93 in 2014.

In 10 years, there were 457 attempted egg retrievals, 331 attempted fertilisations and about 221 embryos. These resulted in just five pregnancies and two successful births.

On November 10, 1977, Lesley Brown, who suffered from blocked fallopian tubes, underwent what would later become known as IVF. The procedure was a success and Louise Joy Brown was born in Oldham General Hospital weighing 5lb 12oz on July 25, 1978.

Louise was born by caesarean section and delivered by Prof Steptoe and John Webster.

After Louise’s birth her parents received hate mail including letters spattered in red liquid, plastic foetuses and broken test tubes.John Brown died in 2007, aged 64; his wife Lesley died in 2012, also aged 64.

Despite Louise’s birth the medical establishment did not rate IVF. In 1981, the Cambridgeshire Health Authority told Edwards that the treatment gave hope to only “a very small group of women” and refused to refer NHS patients to him.

In 2010, Robert Edwards was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Steptoe had died aged 74 in 1988 and Purdy in 1985, aged 39.

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