by Allie Dillon and Nicky Sugar
At Bristol Archives, we take in a large number of collections each year, and look after the memories of many notable Bristolians. But a first for us was receiving a donation of material from someone who was famous before they were even born! Nicky Sugar and Allie Dillon explain the story behind the latest collection we’ve made available to the public.
In 2016 Louise Brown, a Bristol resident and the world’s first IVF baby, donated her family’s archive to Bristol Archives. Her mother Lesley collected the material together. It provided source material for Louise 2015 autobiography My Life as the World’s First Test-Tube Baby. The collection tells the story of an ordinary family who found themselves in an extraordinary situation following Louise’s birth in July 1978.
Lesley gave birth to Louise thanks to a ground-breaking scientific discovery, but the story told by the documents in the archive is very personal. Many people from around the world sent cards and letters to the Brown family, including other women who had suffered fertility problems. These documents show various attitudes to assisted reproduction. We can also see the huge international media interest in the family through the press contracts and letters from journalists. This media interest continues today.
The collection features photographs, films and mementoes from the Browns’ travels to IVF events abroad. There are also letters from the scientists and doctors who treated Lesley Brown, and kept in touch with the family. There are some objects too, including gifts which well-wishers have given to Louise over the years: these are now part of the museum collection.
July 2018 marks Louise’s 40th birthday, and several organisations will be celebrating the occasion by highlighting developments in reproductive technology over the years. The Science Museum are planning a major exhibition on the history of IVF, and scientific researchers are trying to capture the memories of those involved in pioneering research who are still alive.
With this in mind, we made a successful application to the Wellcome Trust’s Research Resources Grant fund last autumn. The money we received paid for cataloguing the collection, conserving damaged items and digitising film and VHS material.
We were joined for six weeks by a project archivist, Jasna, who repackaged and catalogued the material. One of the highlights was the morning which Louise and her agent Martin Powell (also the co-writer of her book) spent here, identifying people in photos and adding extra information about events.
The final part of the project is letting people know about the collection. We’ll be sending information to university departments which have staff working in relevant fields, and helping the Science Museum by loaning items for their exhibition.
From December, items from the Lesley Brown collection will be displayed at M Shed, to highlight Bristol’s connection to the early history of IVF.
Lesley’s successful treatment and Louise’s birth gave hope to millions of families around the world. We are delighted to be able to share the documents which tell their stories.
Find out more
Material from this collection will feature in the free Science Museum exhibition IVF: 6 Million Babies Later, from 5 July 2018.
- Letter from Dr Edwards to Lesley Brown in December 1977, indicating that she may be pregnant (ref. 45827/CO/1/6) By permission of the family of Sir Robert Edwards
- Card from ‘a secret well-wisher’ thanking the Browns for giving ‘millions of people hope and happiness’ (ref. 45827/CO/12/5)
- Louise Brown (left) sharing information about her family photos at Bristol Archives
© Mark Small
- Featured image: One of many letters which reached the Browns, addressed to ‘The test tube baby, Bristol, England’. (ref. 45827/CO/6/3)