11 Jul 2012 Lesley Brown: a Pioneer in IVF
The death of Lesley Brown, the first mother to conceive using in vitro fertilization and deliver a healthy baby—a girl, Louise--sparked a number of retrospectives on the birth of IVF. Lesley Brown struggled for nine years to conceive naturally, only to be diagnosed with bilateral fallopian tube obstruction. She was referred to Dr. Patrick Steptoe in 1976, a forerunner in the field of gynecological laparoscopy, and told there was a procedure she could try to become pregnant. With Lesley’s determination and the dedication of her doctors, IVF was born.
The first successful IVF procedure in 1978
Dr. Steptoe had already begun using laparoscopy, small incisions with cameras guiding his work, to collect ova from infertile volunteers and was collaborating with Robert Edwards, embryologist, to develop in vitro fertilization into a viable option for infertile couples. Their first attempt resulted in a tubal pregnancy, and they began to lose confidence, discouraged by colleagues.
However, on November 10th, 1977, Steptoe and Edwards tried again. Steptoe performed a laparoscopic procedure on Lesley Brown, retrieving a single mature egg. Her husband John donated his sperm for the experiment, and under the direction of Robert Edwards the egg was fertilized in a lab. A few days later, the flourishing embryo was placed into Lesley’s uterus, and the pregnancy held. Within a few short months the media began to swarm; an otherwise infertile woman was pregnant! On July 25, 1978 Louise Brown, 5 pounds 12 ounces, blond hair, and blue eyes, became the “World’s first test-tube arrival.” (IVF1) A few years later, Lesley was able to conceive again using the same procedure and delivered another healthy baby girl.
The overall success rate of ART procedures today is 57% bringing this method very close to success rates of natural conception. (ASRM) IVF is now a mainstream clinical practice giving couples hope for family formation. The pace of medical and technological advancements today increases the possibilities of assisted reproductive medicine to include infertile couples and non-traditional family formation. Unfortunately, lawmakers struggle to stay apace of the rapid development of technologies—making it more important than ever for couples to obtain experienced and effective legal counsel when undertaking family formation via ART.
Thank you Brown family for sharing your lives. As we remember IVF pioneer Lesley Brown, it’s important to appreciate the controversy she faced and the triumph she achieved.
“I felt sad when I heard [Lesley passed away],” says [Janice] Evans, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Think about the courage and persistence she must have had. She was a real trail blazer. As were Steptoe and Edwards…. If the three of them hadn’t been so determined there would have been a big gap for the many couples who struggle with infertility.” (MSNBC)
In the 70’s, in vitro fertilization was so experimental that many people mocked Steptoe and Edwards’ efforts. “BBC produced a television program about cell fusion and in-vitro fertilization which opened with a picture of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima.”
During Lesley’s first pregnancy, she was bombarded by curious reporters. Her medical team even scheduled the c-section at night to avoid interruptions. The general public seemed to have mixed emotions about the new technology, but virtually no one at the time recognized this extraordinary woman and these humble doctors as trailblazers for reproductive medicine. Lesley’s IVF success spawned experiments around the world, and over the next decade success rates skyrocketed. “IVF babies now make up a measurable percentage of the total births in developed countries. Some of these children, now grown to adulthood, have begun to have their own children, IVF's second generation.” (IVF1)