She Began a Baby Boom

ScienceNOW wishes a happy 21st birthday to the first test tube baby, Joy Louise Brown, who was born in England on 25 July 1978. Brown got her start thanks to an in vitro fertilization technique developed by gynecologist Patrick Steptoe and physiologist Robert G. Edwards. The success sparked both praise and ethical debates.

Steptoe pioneered the use of laparoscopic surgery--in which a long, thin telescope is inserted through a small incision into the inflated abdominal cavity--and he developed a method for obtaining eggs from the ovaries. Edwards figured out how to fertilize eggs outside the body and achieved his first success in 1968. In 1972, the pair attempted the first implantation, but had no luck until 1977. Critics voiced ethical and moral concerns about tampering with the creation of human life, and Steptoe and Edwards were reluctant to discuss the new procedure. They finally presented their work to the scientific community in 1979.

Brown was the first, but she is hardly the only test tube baby alive today. According to a worldwide survey by the pharmaceutical company Oragnon, by 1994 more than 150,000 babies worldwide had been born as a result of in vitro fertilization.

[Sources: Emily McMurray, Ed., Notable Twentieth Century Scientists (Gale Research Inc., ITP, 1995).]