June 21, 2012 at 1:57 PM ET
Lesley Brown, the woman who gave birth to the first test tube baby has died at age 64 after a brief illness, the British newspaper The Telegraph reports.
Brown sought out the experimental new treatment, in vitro fertilization, after nine years of trying to get pregnant on her own with her husband John.
She gave birth to a daughter, Louise, in 1978 with the help of two British specialists Dr. Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards.
Louise told the BBC, “Mum was a quiet and private person who ended up in the world spotlight because she wanted a family so much. We are all missing her terribly.” Lesley Brown died June 6 at Royal Bristol Infirmary, The Telegraph reported.
Louise’s birth was the beginning of a “revolution,” says Dr. Anthony Wakim, director of assisted reproductive technologies at the Magee-Women’s Hospital at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“I still remember exactly what I was doing,” Wakim remembers. “I had just started my internship at the University of Maryland and I was pumping gas into my car when I heard it on the radio. It was just mind-boggling. To my mind it was almost science fiction. It was very far fetched.”
It wasn’t long after when groups in the U.S. developed the expertise to produce babies through in vitro fertilization, Wakim says.
And that changed everything for parents who had been suffering with infertility.
“It was a very big deal,” Wakim says. “Before that we had to rely on micro-surgery to break up the adhesions that were scarring the tubes. Those surgeries could drag on for three or four hours and the results were not so good. The scarring could recur and many times there were ectopic pregnancies.
“I look back and I’m flabbergasted.”
The news of Lesley Brown’s death caught Janice Evans by surprise.
“I felt sad when I heard,” says 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.” Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for developing IVF. Steptoe died in 1988.
Lesley Brown’s story underscores how persistent people can change the world. “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,” Evans adds.
The iconic photo of Edwards with Lesley and Louise sums it all up, Evans says.
“Edwards has his arm around Lesley, and Louise is standing next to them holding her son. You get the feeling looking at that photo that they were all in the fight together not just to make a change in the Brown family but to push frontiers.”
Today, the results of that groundbreaking birth are all around us. In 2010, 58,727 babies were born through IVF in the U.S., says Sean Tipton, director of public affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine
“It’s remarkable to think that if you look around a preschool classroom, a big chunk of those kids may have come from IVF,” Evans says.