Magazine science. The covers of the mid-twentieth century illustrated magazines, especially Life, Time and Look, tell us much about how views of reproductive technologies changed between the late 1960s and the late 1970s. This 1969 Life cover was published hard on the heels of the Nature article reporting the Edwards-Steptoe success with in vitro early development. The picture of a fetus with the umbilical cord and placenta, in a Petri dish, is juxtaposed with a photo of a mother with a baby. Compare this with the 1978 Time cover marking the birth of Louise Brown, with the test-tube in the centre and no mother in sight. We see a set of parallel reformulations: of the embryo, from part of the maternal body towards an autonomous being created at the moment of fertilization, and from a human figure towards a cell or collection of cells. Technologies of assisted conception have also changed from extensions of the ‘natural’ reproductive process to laboratory-based procedures.

The first ‘test-tube baby’

In vitro fertilization depended on collaboration between physiology and obstetrics and the careful management of publicity.

In the late 1960s, the Cambridge reproductive physiologist Robert Edwards teamed up with the Oldham gynæcologist-obstetrician Patrick Steptoe to capture eggs from ovulating women and fertilize them in vitro. They thus overcame the lack of live human eggs, which had plagued reproduction researchers since Rock and Menkin’s early attempts at Boston’s Free Hospital. Laparoscopy, of which Steptoe was the British pioneer, allowed intervention into the abdominal cavity through just two small holes: one for the camera and one for the surgical instrument. Edwards and Steptoe worked from the first successful in vitro early development (1969) to the first embryo implantation (1976).

But in contrast to the trust in science that had been dominant in the postwar era, many in the 1970s were suspicious and worried. The American bioethicist Leon Kass typically called these interventions a ‘slippery slope’ leading to a Brave New World nightmare, ‘the full laboratory growth of a baby from sperm to term’. Radical feminists feared men controlling reproduction and coercing women into motherhood. The researchers carefully administered the publicity around the birth of the first ‘test-tube’ baby, Louise, to Lesley and John Brown on 25 July 1978. Depictions abounded of reproduction and development in vivo and in vitro.

Robert Edwards and colleagues in their Cambridge laboratory, 1969


A publicity photograph of the ‘test-tube’ baby-makers with Louise Brown, 1978