"I'm shaking," said the world's first test-tube baby yesterday as she celebrated her 25th birthday. Louise Brown is very famous - her name is mentioned every time fertility treatment gets discussed - and yet this was her first public appearances as a test-tube adult. "I just get on with my life - normal,'' she told a battery of television cameras at Bourn Hall near Cambridge, the fertility clinic founded by the men who gave her life.
Patrick Steptoe died in 1988 but Professor Bob Edwards was on the steps of the clinic yesterday to pose for photographs with Louise and Alastair Macdonald, the first boy born using the pioneering techniques of in-vitro fertilisation.
"This is the first time the three of us have ever been together like this," said Professor Edwards, 77.
Back in 1978 the doctors were warned that playing God would have dire consequences: a baby born sick or deformed or destined to die early. More than a million people now exist across the world thanks, indirectly, to the work of Steptoe and Edwards. The first of them all looked perfectly healthy yesterday in a cream trouser suit, with her frizzy blonde hair tied back. She was also very nervous.
"It's nice to come back and see the doctors and all my old friends," said Louise, clearly uncomfortable with all the attention. "I don't feel any more special than anyone else, just normal. Mum and Dad didn't treat Natalie any different from me," she said, referring to her younger sister, who was the 40th IVF baby in the world. Natalie was also at Bourn Hall yesterday, along with 1,000 other children conceived there over the years.
Their parents were the lucky ones, and clearly proud of the babies they had longed for. The success rate for IVF is now up to one in four, but thousands of childless couples remain caught in the agonising cycle of hope and despair, paying £3,000 a shot for treatment, unable to stop because there is always one more scientific breakthrough on the horizon.
Baby-makers who exploit loopholes in the regulations, and scientists who talk about developing "synthetic sex cells'' or cloning, ensure their alchemy meets with at least as much suspicion as it did in 1978. Professor Edwards was enthusiastic about the latest science yesterday, of course, if sceptical about claims there could be an end to infertility within a decade. "There are a lot of questions still to ask. A lot of work has still to be done." In the meantime, Bourn Hall Clinic seized the opportunity for good publicity by filling its beautiful grounds with balloons, dancers, jazz musicians on stilts, a brass band and happy children - but it was Louise who cut the birthday cake.
So how did she feel to be sitting next to the man whose scientific daring had made her possible? "Weird," was the one-word answer, given with a blush and a smile at Professor Edwards, who has been a friend of the family all her life. The embrace he was given by her father John was warm and enthusiastic. "As soon as I was implanted I knew it was going to work and I was going to have a girl," said her mother, Lesley. "I felt like I was in a cocoon, the doctors made me feel safe." The Browns were not the first to experience the anxiety of an IVF pregnancy. Another woman had conceived a child but lost it. Louise was born by caesarean section in Oldham, Lancashire, weighing 5lbs 12oz on 25 July 1978. So far 68,000 British children owe their lives to IVF, the process of extracting an egg, impregnating it with sperm in the laboratory, and planting the successful embryo back in the mother.
"I'm not a scientist," said Louise Brown when she was asked about the treatment that made her mother pregnant. "I don't really know a lot about it." She was five years old when her parents told her how she had been conceived. "They had it all on video, so Mum and Dad showed that to me at home. It was just before I went to school." After working as a nursery nurse, Louise became a postwoman. She has neither cashed in on her fame nor paid it much attention. "I get phonecalls from mates saying, 'There was a picture of you in the paper' or on TV, and I'm like 'Was there? Oh. Okay.'" Louise is engaged to be married but has no plans for children of her own just yet. "I haven't really thought that far ahead. Would she have IVF if necessary? The answer was quick, emphatic, and hardly surprising: "Yes."Reuse content