World’s first test tube baby pays tribute to ‘forgotten’ pioneer of IVF

Louise Brown, right, the world’s first test tube baby and Grace MacDonald, the mother of the world’s first test tube baby boy, lay flowers at the grave of Jean Purdy (Joe Giddens/ PA) Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The world’s first test tube baby has paid tribute to the “forgotten” third pioneer who worked alongside the two researchers widely credited with the development of IVF treatment.

Louise Brown, 39, was born at Oldham General Hospital on July 25 1978 after her parents Lesley and John became the first people to successfully undergo in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Her birth attracted controversy, with religious leaders expressing concern about the use of artificial intervention and some raising fears that science was creating “Frankenbabies”, but also paved the way for around eight million IVF births across the world to date.

Mrs Brown, now a mother-of-two living in Bristol with her husband, Wesley Mullinder, said that the contribution of embryologist Jean Purdy deserved greater recognition, alongside the better-known involvement of gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and physiologist Robert Edwards.

Purdy, who was initially hired as a lab technician by Edwards, was the first person to witness the successful cell division of the embryo that would become Louise Brown.

She co-authored 26 academic papers about IVF and helped found the Bourn Hall fertility clinic in Cambridgeshire, but is rarely mentioned in the story of IVF.

Jean Purdy’s role is lesser known Credit: Bourn Hall/ PA

Purdy died in 1985, aged 39.

Mrs Brown, who works as a clerk at a freight company, said: “Jean Purdy was, I was told by my mum, the one who saw all the cells dividing which is now me.

“Without her I don’t think IVF would have taken off.

“I know Bob and Patrick used to go home to their wives and families and I think it was Jean that used to stay and make sure everything was just as it should have been.”

The newly unveiled headstone at the grave of Jean Purdy Credit: Joe Giddens/ PA

She described them as “three great people” and said she hopes Purdy “gets the recognition she deserves now”.

She was speaking at Bourn Hall to mark 40 years of IVF, and earlier laid flowers at Purdy’s new memorial at the Church of St Andrew and St Mary in Grantchester where she is buried.

There was previously a simple headstone which did not acknowledge Purdy’s work.

Louise Brown, the world’s first test tube baby and Grace MacDonald, the mother of the world’s first test tube baby boy, lay flowers at Jean Purdy’s grave Credit: Joe Giddens/PA

Steptoe died in 1988 aged 74, and Edwards died in 2013 aged 87.

Edwards, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 for the development of IVF, had previously said “there were three original pioneers in IVF not just two”.

“They should have all been recognised more than they were,” Mrs Brown said.

A memorial service is held around the grave of Jean Purdy Credit: Joe Giddens/ PA

She said her parents received “weird” mail over the years, including a package from California containing a broken test tube with a foetus and fake blood, but that she had never had any “nasty” approaches and “definitely not recently”.

“I think there’s so many IVF children now that I think it’s a lot more accepted now 40 years on than it was when I was born,” she said. “I think everybody’s sort of moved mostly with the times.”

Grace MacDonald, mother of Alastair MacDonald, the second ever IVF baby and first ever IVF baby boy, who was born on January 14 1979, said Purdy deserved more recognition but she would not have minded the lack of it.

“I always got the feeling that she loved being part of it all but she loved being in the background,” she said. “She never sought or wanted to be a star although to me she always was as she was the one I felt that held it all together, kept the notes, looked after the girls at that time.

“She just had an amazing way about her.”