How the World Reacted to the First 'Test Tube' Baby

Nowadays, IVF is a fairly standard and routine medical procedure. But the birthday of Louise Brown, the world’s first “test tube baby,” is a reminder what big news the technology was when it first appeared.

Brown was born in the United Kingdom on July 25, 1978, and entered the world as a medical breakthrough.

That video might look very dry and business-as-usual, but the BBC reports that there was a good bit of cloak-and-dagger maneuvering involved. “On the day I was born, my mum had to be taken to the operating theatre for her Caesarean section in pitch darkness, with just a torchlight showing the way,” Brown said. “Only a few staff knew who she was, and my parents didn’t want others realising her identity and tipping off the newspapers.”


When the word did get out, it was a major news story, dominating headlines in the U.K.

When Brown’s mother left the hospital for home, there were reporters waiting.

The story made the papers across America as well, sometimes landing on the front page. For instance, the Gettysburg Times:


The very term “test tube baby” illustrates the complex morass of reactions the development elicited. It’s a nervous term, one that sounds like a Brave New World freakout waiting to happen. The AP, for instance, reported that a federal advisory committee would be assembled to discuss the ethics of the procedure. (At the time the NIH wasn’t too keen on federal funding for research into the practice.) One bioethicist expressed concern about the possibility of “womb rental” which, hey, the world’s still working through that one. UPI reported that the baby was “fine” and noted that “Doctors say birth signals new hope for many couples.” Right underneath, the Lodi News Sentinel parked another wire-service story, about another ongoing legal case:


Shettles never managed to substantiate his claims, though, so it’s Brown that went in the history books.

Not that it was precisely smooth sailing for the family. Brown told the BBC that her mother received some hate mail, including—from here in America—a package containing “a broken test-tube, fake blood and a pretend foetus inside,” and “It came with a threat that the people who sent it were coming to see them.” Every birthday was an international news event—minor, but news nonetheless. Brown has written a book about her experiences, due out in August.


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