25 JULY 1978 – a very special night and a very special baby girl…
Dr John Webster, former Medical Director at CARE Fertility was part of the clinical team at Oldham General Hospital where Lesley Brown and her husband John were about to deliver the world’s first “test-tube” baby. John recalls the night that Louise Brown was born….
“Patrick Steptoe and I first worked together from 1962 - 1963. As someone who daily witnessed the unhappiness infertility causes, I was thrilled to find myself working with him again. There was tremendous controversy about in vitro fertilisation at the time. Steptoe and his colleague, scientist Dr Robert Edwards were accused of playing God and most of the medical world was deeply opposed to the technique.
As Steptoe’s registrar, it was my job to select patients for research. The idea seemed simple; collect eggs, fertilise them, then place the embryos into the womb. Sadly, five years of crushing disappointments passed before we achieved a viable pregnancy with Lesley Brown, whose fallopian tubes had been removed.
There was intense public interest and the world waited with bated breath for the birth. We were terribly apprehensive. There was a dreadful fear that the baby would be abnormal in some way – and there was no way of knowing until she was born. About a month before the baby was due, Lesley was admitted to hospital suffering from raised blood pressure and kept isolated in a ward surrounded by intense security. Outside in the hospital grounds there were banks of television cameras and press. Slowly the tension grew.
Lesley had been in hospital for three weeks, Steptoe decided to deliver the baby by Caesarean section. The operation was planned for 11.30pm but Steptoe fooled the reporters into thinking that he’d left for the evening by driving off in his white Mercedes – then slipping back into the hospital later. We had to prepare Lesley by torchlight – so no one would see her room light up.
Everything was riding on this moment – the whole team was hyped up. If anything had gone wrong, it would have destroyed everything we had worked towards. There was an incredible air of anticipation in the theatre. My job was to hand Patrick the instruments. Gradually he was able to place his hand under the baby’s head and I helped push the baby out. The theatre was silent. Louise finally emerged – a perfectly normal, healthy baby girl – and let out a huge cry. Steptoe shouted “that’s what I like to hear, good lung development”! The relief was palpable. It had been a routine Caesarean delivery but we knew history had been made.
Shortly after the birth, Steptoe took off into the night. He was elated, but completely drained, having faced so many setbacks and critics to arrive at that point. Bob Edwards and his assistant came back to my house in the hospital grounds. We had some tea and cheese on toast. Not much of a celebration but we knew we’d been part of something special.
That night was the highlight of my career. I’ve experienced exciting times as a fertility specialist, both at the Park Hospital and CARE Fertility in Nottingham. Sadly, Bob Edwards passed away in 2013 before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Patrick Steptoe died in 1988 but he will never be forgotten. His vision has brought joy to literally millions of people all over the world.”
As told to the Daily Mail Weekend Magazine
John Webster, 2006 opening the CARE Nottingham clinic – John Webster House