She gave me life – and every woman the chance to be a mother: First ever test tube baby pays tribute to her mum after her death aged 64Louise Brown, 33, was the world's first child conceived with IVF She says weeks without mother Lesley has been the worst of her life
00:37 GMT, 24 June 2012
Special Bond: Lesley and John Brown with baby Louise shortly after her birth in 1978
To anybody who spots her on the street, juggling her shopping and her boisterous five-year-old son, Louise Brown looks like any other young, slightly harassed mother.
Everything about her – from her defiantly unpolished appearance and no-nonsense demeanour to her job as an administrator for a shipping firm – is resolutely ordinary, with no hint she has spent her entire life in the spotlight.
Yet Louise was the first baby to be born as the result of in vitro fertilisation, and as a result of this unique aspect of her existence she has shared every milestone with the world, from her first birthday to the birth of her son, Cameron.
That she has managed to emerge from it all so utterly down-to-earth is testimony, she knows now better than ever, to the happiness and stability of her upbringing.
For the 33-year-old is going through perhaps the most difficult rite of passage of all. Earlier this month, her mother Lesley died suddenly, after developing septicaemia while being treated in hospital for gallstones.
The pair were exceptionally close, especially so since the death five years ago of her father, John, from lung cancer.
Everybody who has lost a loved one can identify with Louise’s grief. Yet the circumstances of her birth gave the bond with her mother a special intensity, and make Lesley’s death at 64 particularly poignant.
It was Lesley’s desperation to become a mother that led her to take a chance with an experimental procedure that had never previously worked for other couples.
She was a shy, self-effacing woman, but with a bravery and determination that changed history.
Louise, right, with Lesley in the background, pictured in 2010
‘I don’t think Mum’s death has really hit me yet,’ Louise says. ‘The past few weeks have been the worst of my life.
'I’ve cried so much that I feel like I’m all cried out and then something silly, like a piece of music or something on the TV or a comment from Cameron, will set me off again.
The tributes to Mum have been lovely. People from all over the world have written messages to say what a fantastic pioneer she was.
She would have laughed at the word “pioneer”, though.
She’d say she wasn’t brave; she just wanted a family so badly she was prepared to do anything. But she was quietly determined.
‘I don’t think I could have tried for a baby for as long as she did. I’d have given up, but she never did.
Lesley pictured holding flowers, left and with husband John Brown at Oldham General Hospital before giving birth to Louise in July 1978
She gave me life – and every woman the chance to be a mother.’
She adds: ‘To me, she was just a normal mum. She was so kind and giving and I can’t think of anything important which has happened to me without her being there.
She helped me organise my wedding; she was there when I gave birth to Cameron.
‘I can’t imagine what life’s going to be like without her, but I was brought up to get on with things, so that’s what I’m doing.’
Lesley’s funeral was last week, and making the arrangements has kept Louise, her elder half-sister Sharon – her father’s child by an earlier partner – and her younger sister Natalie busy.
Louise pictured on the Daily Mail's front page 18 hours old in 1978
But she is clearly still in a state
of shock over the loss of her mother, who lived just ten minutes away
from the home in Bristol she shares with her husband, Wesley Mullinder.
was being treated in Bristol Royal Infirmary when it became clear she
would not survive the blood infection she had contracted.
was such a shock,’ Louise says. ‘When we were told there was nothing
they could do, my sisters and I made the decision to switch off her
life- support, and we were all with her to say goodbye and hold her hand
at the end, which made it easier.
‘Afterwards, I went straight home to
tell Cameron, which I found very difficult. Mum picked him up from
school most days and cared for him until I got back from work and he
loved her very much.’
many ways, Louise’s ordinariness has always been part of what has made
her story so charming. To those who feared her birth heralded a new era
of scientists ‘playing God’ with impunity, she is a living
she was born on July 25, 1978, the first success from pioneers Patrick
Steptoe, a gynaecologist, and Dr Robert Edwards, a biologist, in
Oldham, the Vatican said it could have ‘grave consequences for
Even James Watson, the DNA pioneer, warned that the scientists were dabbling in infanticide.
But to her working-class parents she was simply the perfect baby they had spent nine years trying for.
Of course, when Lesley and John first
agreed to the treatment, which involved an egg being removed from one
of Lesley’s ovaries with a probe and mixed in a petri dish – not a test
tube – with John’s sperm and the resulting embryo being implanted in
Lesley’s womb two days later, they had little idea of its significance.
‘Mum knew it had been tried before but she didn’t realise that it had never resulted in a baby,’ says Louise.
‘It wasn’t until near the end of her pregnancy that she understood it would be a world first, which I think is good.
IVF pioneer Professor Robert Edwards who made the in vitro fertilisation possible, Lesley Brown, and Louise Brown, 30 with her son Cameron at the 30th anniversary of Louise's birth in Cambridgeshire in 2008
'She was a worrier and if she’d known, it might not have worked.’
the moment of Louise’s birth, for which reporters and television crews
from six continents set up camp outside the hospital, every aspect of
her formative years was subject to international attention.
first John and Lesley were happy to give interviews and travel the
world showing off their miracle baby, but they soon began to find the
Lesley Brown, the first woman in the world to successfully give birth following IVF treatment, has died at the age of 64
‘Mum always hated the attention,’ says Louise. ‘Recently, I was transferring some of our old videos on to DVD and I saw a programme which was made when I was about six months old.
I noticed that all the questions were directed to my dad because my mum was just sitting there.
If she was asked something directly, she would answer, but she was obviously uncomfortable. She was shy and quiet.
‘She’d sometimes say she felt like I wasn’t her baby; that she was sharing me with the world.
'She didn’t like it. She wanted me to
grow up in a normal way. After a while she and my dad decided they
wanted to limit the publicity. They both tried hard to protect me.’
All the attention from strangers might have made Louise feel special, but she insists she didn’t.
she admits: ‘Of course I knew people were interested in me – wherever I
went as a child people wanted to ask me questions. I liked talking to
parents got media requests from all over the world every week, but they
limited the press I did to certain milestones, when they knew we
wouldn’t be able to avoid the attention. They were very practical about
‘I remember a TV company calling them once to ask if we could fly to America the next day.
I got excited about it, but they explained they had jobs and we couldn’t just drop everything and go.’
was four – around the time her younger sister Natalie, also conceived
via IVF, was born – when her parents tried to explain her conception.
Louise Brown, centre, and her parents, Lesley and John, who passed away five years ago. Louise has paid tribute to her mother saying she can't imagine what life will be like without her
Concerned that the older children at school might tease her, they told her about her ‘uncles’ who pioneered the IVF process.
‘Mum and Dad showed me the video of my birth and told me that although I was the same as everyone else, the way I was made was slightly different.
Over the years, I’d hear people talking about it, and as I got older I started to understand what it meant.
‘Kids at school would mention it and
sometimes they’d shout “test-tube baby” at me, but they weren’t nasty,
just interested because it was something different.
didn’t like that term at the start because she thought it made me sound
like an experiment, but I’ve never minded; it’s just a short-hand for
IVF and everyone uses it.
‘I never felt isolated from other kids. I’m outgoing and I love chatting – the opposite of Mum, really.’
Lesley’s best efforts to shield her daughter, photographers lurking
outside the family home were a constant throughout Louise’s childhood.
A mother's love: Lesley and Louise Brown pictured shortly after coming home from the hospital in 1978
She was determined that it would not alter the upbringing she wanted for her daughter, and she managed to make it as unremarkable as possible, with family horse-riding and swimming excursions.
Spotting reporters became a family joke, one which brought them closer together.
‘When I think about Mum during my childhood, I just think about the fact that she was always there,’ says Louise.
‘Whatever my sister and I needed, she gave us.
She was a very gentle person and very stable. She worried for me, but because she was always there, I was never worried about anything.’
For all Louise’s determinedly positive outlook, there were undoubtedly aspects of their fame which were painful for the family.
‘Over the years there have been some cruel and hurtful things written about me, which Mum found difficult,’ she admits.
‘I’ve always been big and I don’t mind, but it wasn’t nice for Mum to have to see comments about the ‘thing’ she created.
‘On a website this week, I saw someone had written: “I hope Lesley’s death wasn’t a result of her IVF”. People can be very ignorant. I felt like replying to say, “Of course not”, but I know I can’t.’
As she grew older, Louise’s reliance on her mother continued.
When she first met Wesley, a nightclub doorman, in 2002, the couple moved into her parents’ home until they could afford their own house.
It was Lesley she called first when she became engaged and Lesley who was by her side when she gave birth to Cameron by caesarean in December 2006 – the day after her father’s death.
‘I don’t know if the fact Mum tried so hard to have me had an effect on me, but I always wanted children, and I was lucky to conceive naturally after only six months of trying,’ she says.
Lesley proved herself to be not only an extraordinary mother, but grandmother, too. ‘From the moment he was born, she helped me so much,’ says Louise.
Lesley, John and Louise Brown return to Oldham General Hospital in 1979 to see the nurses that helped during her birth
‘She even showed me how to give him his first bath because I didn’t know what I was doing. When I went back to work, she had him every day.’
Although she believes wholeheartedly in IVF, like many others, Louise worries about the consequences of the advances which have followed since her conception.
‘IVF has helped millions of couples have babies. Of course I’d have had it myself if I’d needed to,’ she says.
‘I don’t have strong feelings about surrogacy – if it’s used properly it can help women who can’t carry a child.
'I’m happy for same-sex couples to use IVF to have a baby, but I don’t believe couples should be able to choose the sex or anything else of their child unless it’s for medical reasons.’
Her biggest concern is over the increasing numbers of women having treatment to conceive babies long past the age they would be able to naturally.
‘Children need their parents to be there, so I believe in having children young, to see as much of their lives as possible,’ she says.
‘I can understand why some older women might be desperate for a family if they haven’t had one, but I’d be worried about women in their fifties having a baby just because they can.’
At 33, she is young to have had her own parents taken from her, but it is the practical attitude her mother instilled in her which will ensure she is able to cope.
Her death has made Louise think more deeply about motherhood.
‘I keep thinking what a brilliant mother she was, to make things so secure for us even though she’d suddenly been plunged into a crazy situation,’ she says. ‘
‘She wouldn’t want me moping about,’ she says.
‘Besides, when you’re a mum, you have to carry on. If I can do as good a job as her, I’ll be happy.’