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Secret millionairess funded research for first IVF baby

18 June 2018
Appeared in BioNews 954

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).

12 August 2019 - by Dr Maria Botcharova 
The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group has decided to withdraw NHS-funded fertility services after a temporary suspension in 2017...
17 June 2019 - by Martha Henriques 
An Oldham councillor is urging for Jean Purdy, one of the three people who developed IVF, to be formally acknowledged for her work, after letters revealed how the Oldham Health Authority ignored requests for Purdy to be recognised in the 1980s...
28 January 2019 - by Sarah Norcross 
The Progress Educational Trust event '40 Years of IVF: Past, Present and Future' promised to be a special one, organised as it was to mark the 40th birthday of the world's first IVF baby boy Alastair MacDonald, and it didn't disappoint...
26 March 2018 - by Kathryn Ashe 
A study predicts that nearly 400 million people in 2100 may be alive as a result of assisted reproductive technologies (ART).
11 September 2017 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
Jean Purdy, embryologist to the world's first IVF baby, should be celebrated as IVF's third pioneer, says the British Fertility Society...
5 October 2015 - by Sarah Norcross 
'My Life as the World’s First Test-Tube Baby' is a must-read for anyone who works in this sector – especially those who are too young to remember the circumstances around Louise Brown's birth...
21 October 2013 - by Suzanne Elvidge 
Since the birth of Louise Brown in July 1978, five million babies have been born with the help of IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies...
22 April 2013 - by BioNews 
Tributes to the recently deceased IVF pioneer Professor Sir Robert Edwards continue to pour in from across the globe...
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