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Lesley Brown, who had first in vitro baby, dies

Robert Edwards and Lesley Brown, center, with her

Robert Edwards and Lesley Brown, center, with her daughter, Louise, and grandson Cameron pose during a celebration just before of Louise's 30th birthday at England's Bourn Hall Clinic in 2008. Louise was the world's first known in-vitro baby. Newsday's obituary for Lesley Brown
Credit: Getty Images

When Lesley Brown's first child was born, there was no need to send out announcements. The news was on front pages around the world: "OUR MIRACLE," "BABY OF THE CENTURY," "IT'S A GIRL."

On July 25, 1978, Brown, a young woman from a working-class English town, gave birth to the first baby conceived outside the womb. Baby Louise Joy became a focus of international fascination as the first so-called test-tube baby, produced through in vitro fertilization, a technique that raised moral and medical alarms 34 years ago but is commonplace today because of the more than 4 million women who have followed in Brown's steps.

Brown died June 6 in Bristol, England, after a short illness, British media reported after her funeral last week. She was 64.

She and her truck driver husband, John, had struggled to conceive a baby for nine years until they met British biologist Robert G. Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist. She had undergone a series of operations that failed to unblock her fallopian tubes, the cause of her inability to become pregnant. The 30-year-old woman was otherwise healthy, making her a good candidate for the experimental procedures the two men had been developing for years.

Her pregnancy proceeded normally -- until word got out that conception had been anything but normal. Reporters from as far away as Japan descended on the Browns' neighborhood and at their hospital in Oldham.

News coverage was filled with purloined details about her diet, her dress, her emotional state. Medical experts were quoted warning about possible abnormalities in any child born of such unorthodox means. Ethicists invoked Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," theorizing about the potential for abuse or misuse of the controversial new technique. Religious leaders said in vitro technology was not in God's plan.

Baby Louise was delivered a few weeks early by Caesarean section because Brown had developed toxemia, a disorder that can lead to stillbirth. The delivery proceeded uneventfully, ending with the most normal kind of drama: The 5-pound-12-ounce newborn "came out crying her head off . . . a beautiful, normal baby," Steptoe told Time magazine, which heralded the event on its cover.

Four years later, in 1982, Brown made history again with the birth of her second child. Daughter Natalie was the world's 40th "test-tube" baby and Brown the first woman to have two children through the in vitro method. In both instances, she became pregnant on her first try.

Brown's husband died in 2007. She is survived by her daughters and grandchildren.

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