The mystery ‘secretive American millionairess’ who funded the world’s first IVF treatment

An eccentric millionairess who suffered fertility problems secretly funded the project to create the world’s first test tube baby.

The unidentified benefactress was acknowledged by Sir Bob Edwards, who developed IVF with Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy, in a paper in 1986.

Sir Bob, who died in 2013, wrote in a scientific paper about the invention of IVF: ‘This work would not have been possible without the generous benefaction of an American millionairess, who herself suffered problems similar to those of the patients now being treated.’

But yesterday at the Cheltenham Science Festival, an IVF researcher who has worked through the archives at Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridgeshire revealed the identity of the woman without whom IVF was not possible.

Dr Kay Elder told the audience that Lillian Lincoln Howell – an amateur poet and founder of a TV station – insisted on being anonymous during her lifetime.

But she said it can now be revealed her donations were crucial for the birth of IVF itself.

She donated the equivalent of around £500,000 in today’s money to fund the treatment – which led to the creation of Louise Brown on 25 July 1978 – 40 years ago this month.

Since her birth more than six million IVF babies have followed her into the world.

Lillian Lincoln Howell died aged 93 in 2014 and made a fortune founding a TV station, KTSF in San Francisco, which catered to Chinese and Japanese Americans – broadcasting in their languages. It first started broadcasting from a caravan on a mountain in northern California in 1976.

Dr Elder, who began working at Bourn Hall in 1984 said IVF was considered so controversial medically, socially and ethically as to be denied funding by the Medical Research Council (MRC) from 1972 -1982.

Dr Elder said by August 1970 the IVF team had developed blastocysts – human embryos before they had implanted in the womb and began making embryo transfers in humans.

They expected to make more rapid progress – but it was to take another eight years before they were successfully implanted in part because funding was hard to come by.

Dr Elder said the researchers had no money, and were doing their work in their spare time often on Sunday night, fitting in teaching and family life.’ ‘They didn’t have funding. Patrick and his team were employed by Oldham General Hospital.

But the major source that allowed Bob [employed at Cambridge University] to do this work and go up to Oldham was an American benefactress, an anonymous lady, she died recently, so we are now able to reveal her name was Lillian Howell.

She was a philanthropist who heard about Bob’s 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.’ She said ‘it wasn’t a lot of money’, they did it on a very tight budget, but it’s remarkable.

The money supplied by Howell was US$95,000 – £34,000, which would be the equivalent of around £500,000 today. Other sources of funding came from Oldham District General Hospital and the Ford Foundation.

In a separate paper, Dr Elder points out: ‘It is of interest that two of the major breakthroughs in reproductive medicine in the twentieth century were both facilitated by enlightened financial support from wealthy strong-minded women’ – IVF by Lillian Howell and the contraceptive pill by Katherine McCormick.

Dr Elder said that Lillian ‘shunned publicity’ and Sir Bob his wife Ruth were adamant that this wish should be respected in her lifetime, but her death on 31 August 2014 legitimately allows her identity to be revealed.