For Lesley Brown, having a family of her own was her greatest desire and led in the late 1970s to her undergoing pioneering IVF treatment. The result was the birth of her daughter Louise, the world’s first “test-tube” baby in 1978.
To celebrate the life of their parents, Louise and sister Natalie returned to Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge with their six children – including a baby each born in 2013 – to plant a tree for Lesley and John, a couple who made medical history.
The sisters choose Bourn Hall for the celebration as it holds good memories for them. Steptoe and Edwards, the founding fathers of IVF, established it as the world’s first IVF clinic in 1980, two years after Lousie was born. Natalie was conceived there a couple of years later.
Although Lesley Brown sadly died last year, she saw her greatest wish come true. At Louise’s 30th birthday in 2008, she spoke of her joy at becoming a grandparent for the first time.
She said: “The reason we wanted children was 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.”
This summer Louise celebrated her 35th birthday and both sisters had babies, born just weeks apart. Louise named her baby Aiden Patrick Robert after the men who made her life possible; gynecologist Patrick Steptoe and physiologist Robert Edwards. Natalie, who was the first IVF baby to give birth, had her fourth child Aeron in August.
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 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.
Medical Director Dr Thomas Mathews had just started working with Steptoe and he remembers her well: “Lesley was one of the sweetest and most cheerful women I have ever met at Bourn Hall. She always had a smile on her face, and was a source of great inspiration to others. She and John were more than willing to share their previous experiences with others around them in our Portacabin wards.”
Senior research scientist, Dr Kay Elder was also working at Bourn in the early 1980s and remembers it as a wonderful and inspiring time: “There was a tremendous atmosphere of ‘excitement’ and close teamwork.”
She feels planting a tree for Lesley and John is very appropriate. “Our spectacular grounds were landscaped in 1817 by one of Britain’s most renowned landscape gardeners, Sir Humphry Repton, and some of the magnificent trees that he planted continue to grace our gardens.
“Planting new trees not only provides a continuing link with the past, but also represents a renewal of life, a fitting tribute to the work pioneered by Steptoe and Edwards. Trees (and tree planting) were one of Bob’s major passions – he planted and cared for several thousand trees at his home.”