What links the world's first IVF baby, Louise Brown, and a self-made American millionairess? It turns out that a secret donation by Lillian Lincoln Howell made possible the pioneering research which led to Brown's birth.
Dr Kay Elder revealed the mystery benefactor's role at a discussion co-organised by the Progress Educational Trust, which publishes BioNews, at the Cheltenham Science Festival this month. Without Howell's financial backing, the groundbreaking work in IVF by Professor Sir Robert Edwards, Dr Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy at Bourn Hall in Cambridgeshire in 1976, would not have been possible.
The wealthy American woman, who had fertility issues herself, donated the equivalent in today's money of £500,000 (then US$95,000).
Dr Elder, who joined Bourn Hall in 1984 as clinical assistant to Dr Steptoe, said the research being done by the trio was so controversial that the UK funding body the Medical Research Council (MRC) would not finance it.
After being turned down by the MRC, the team managed to scrape enough funds for the work together from three main sources: Howell, the Ford Foundation and the Oldham and District General Hospital management committee.
Dr Elder told the festival: 'She [Howell] was a philanthropist who heard about Bob's [Professor Edwards'] work. And she phoned him out of the blue. Bob used to talk about this conversation, he thought it was someone pulling his leg, one of his friends trying to pretend that it was some rich American that was going to fund it, but it was true.'
Howell's money seems to have paid for some clinical supplies including pipettes and tissue culture dishes, office equipment, travel expenses and some staff salary payments, according to a previous paper published by Dr Elder and Professor Martin Johnson at the University of Cambridge.
The benefactor wanted to remain anonymous during her lifetime, and her death in 2014 meant that her identity could be acknowledged.
Professor Edwards has already thanked her, without naming Howells in a paper in 1986, saying: 'The work would not have been possible without the generous benefaction of an American millionairess, who herself had suffered problems similar to those of the patients now being treated.'
Howell was herself a pioneer in a different field, having launched the first US news channel, KTSF Channel 26, specifically catering to Asian audiences in 1976. She also set up her own non-profit organisation, the Lillian Lincoln Foundation.
Louise Brown, who turns 40 next month, was unaware of Howell's contribution to in her birth. Brown's spokesman Martin Powell told the Daily Mail: 'Louise was not aware of this donation but is grateful to all of those who helped IVF happen. Celebrations of the 40th anniversary are going on all over the world and Louise has travelled to four continents this year to join in the celebrations.'
A recent study suggests that by 2100 as many as 400 million people may be alive as a result of assisted reproductive technologies (see BioNews 943).