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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 17:13 GMT 18:13 UK
'I helped deliver Louise'
By Martin Hutchinson
BBC News Online staff

Dr John Webster (Nottingham Post)
Dr John Webster with an IVF baby (courtesy of Nottingham Post)
This week sees the 25th anniversary of the birth of Louise Brown - the world's first test tube baby.

As part of a series of articles marking the anniversary, BBC News Online talks to Dr John Webster, who witnessed the extraordinary scenes surrounding her birth.

In a packed operating theatre in Oldham General Hospital, as the clock moved towards midnight on July 25, 1978, everyone was waiting for a single sound.

Then Louise Brown, delivered by caesarean section moments before, delivered her first powerful cry, and the relief was palpable.

Dr John Webster, who was the registrar of Dr Patrick Steptoe - one of the pioneers of IVF - recounted the moment.

He told BBC News Online: "She didn't have to be resuscitated at all, and the paediatrician who examined her for any defects didn't find any.

"We had all been a little concerned that if, by chance, she had been born with a cleft palate or another minor defect that we couldn't pick up beforehand.

"If that had happened, that would have effectively killed off the research - because people would have said that it was due to the technique."

He recalls a "remarkable buzz" of anticipation around Oldham General Hospital as the moment of Louise's arrival drew closer.

Secrecy broken

Steptoe and Edwards had tried to keep news of the pregnancy secret, but the excitement of Louise's parents had made that impossible, and now the hospital was besieged by reporters from all over the world.

Pregnancy complications meant an early delivery, but the doctors preferred the idea of a caesarean.

Dr Webster said: "It was the only way to show the world that this woman had no fallopian tubes.

First cry: Louise Brown moments after birth
""Otherwise, there would have been sceptics who might claim that she could have become pregnant naturally, no matter what we said."

Dr Steptoe had originally scheduled the operation for the following day, but changed his plans in a bid to outwit journalists.

"The press had got used to seeing him leave in his white Mercedes, so when they saw him drive away, they assumed that was it for the night.

"However, that night, he came back."

Packed theatre

The small operating theatre was bulging at the seams that night - not just with the usual anaesthetists, surgeons and paediatricians, but with others involved in the IVF trials - and even observers from the Central Government Office of Information.

And despite the achievement, afterwards, says John Webster, there were no wild celebrations.

"I felt quite whacked really - I simply went back to the house where I was staying and had some supper.

"I don't think there was even any booze in the cupboard."

The successful delivery of Louise Brown ended a succession of failures which had left scientists doubting whether they would succeed.

I still enjoy it - we always show the couple their embryos before we put them back - that always gives me a kick
Dr John Webster
One woman suffered an ectopic pregnancy, and others miscarried, while others showed no signs of pregnancy.

"It was most upsetting to see the lost pregnancies in these women who had been through so much," said Dr Webster.

However, the birth of Louise was, of course, a turning point, and today almost 1.5 million babies have been born worldwide using IVF.

Embryo thrill

Dr Webster continued in the fertility field, helping to found the successful Care in the Park clinics in the Midlands.

Now, aged 67, he describes himself as "semi-retired", but, 25 years on, still gets a thrill from helping childless couples.

"I still enjoy it. We always show the couple their embryos under the microscope before we put them back.

"That always gives me a kick."

And he staunchly defends IVF from its critics.

"A lot of people felt we were meddling in nature, and shouldn't be doing things like this, but the majority of the people coming to us had damaged tubes, and had no chance of conceiving naturally.

"It's amazing looking back on things to see how they have changed.

"It's just a shame we can't offer this to everyone who needs it.

"This is something that Patrick Steptoe and Bob Edwards were fighting for for years."

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