It was an early breakthrough.
"One day, Edwards rang me up," says Patrick Steptoe. "'Patrick, come up to the laboratory.' And I went up and he said, 'Have a look,' I thought I was just looking at a human egg cell. 'Do you know what you're looking at?' Edwards said. I said I wasn't sure. Edwards said. 'Well, it's a human egg there. You're looking at the fertilization of a human in vitre (in a glass) and I believe that you and I are the only two people in the world who have truly ever see it.' That was in 1968."
1978: The baby is doing very well. "She's up to 11 pounds now," reports the distinguished grey-haired English doctor - with a touch more proprietary pride than a baby doctor would normally show. Patrick Steptoe was talking, in a way, about "his baby - Louise Brown, the first child conceived in a glass dish and successfull carried to birth.
Born in England on July 26, Louise Brown represented the fruition of more than a decade of intensive effort by gynecologist Steptoe and his partner, physiologist Robert Edwards, to invent a way for women who normally could not conceive to have babies. During that time, Steptoe fought medical and religious opposition, and forced countless setbacks. Before Louise's birth he was criticized for playing God. Since Louise's birth, he has been criticized - totally inaccurately, he says - of cashing in on the tabloid sensationalizing of this rare medical feat that will revolutionize the life of some couples who need no longer remain childless.
At 65, Steptoe says simply, "All I want to do is to help mothers whose childbearing mechanism is slightly faulty."
After observing Steptoe - in Washington on a medical/media journey that includes stop-offs in Australia - that sounds believable. He looks perwect for his role: silver-haired, blue eyes winkling behind horn-rimmed glasses, a reassuring gentle manner, a Rex Harrisonemphasis and a lift to certain words in his sentences. "It was a simply marvelous opportunity . . ."
He is equally at ease recounting World War II days when he smuggled escape plans as an Italian prisoner of war; or his life with his wife, a former Old Vic actress; or his honor from the French as a wine connoisseur; or the piano and organ recitals he performs.
Behind it all, there is a quiet tenacity and ego. "I had a remarkable mother and when I was a boy she used to say opposition, obstructions and setbacks are really challenges, that you should see them as opportunities for progress and development. She passed on that kind of philosphy to me.
"She was involved with social services and family planning. In those days there was a great deal of resistance to social welfare. In our small town of Oxfordshire, she helped set up services for helping the poverty-stricken any way she could. My father was a little different. He passed on to me his love of music. He was organist in the Oxforshire church for 60 years.
"I studied music quite seriously when young. Again, possibly my mother's influence. I had to make a decision of music or medicine."
In his early training, Steptoe says he had a feel for obstetrics and gynecology but feels he did not receive enough training. "So I went to Dublin - where of course there's masses of obstetrics to do. There were just so many women having babies."
World War II came along and "in many ways shaped my life," says Steptoe. He volunteered for the Royal Naval reserve and was called up in 1939. He was on a destroyer that was sunk in the Battle of Crete.
Steptoe was 26. "We had bombs right down in our engine room that sunk us. I was the doctor in charge, trying to look after the wounded. We were picked up by the Italians. That's probably better than the Germans but then worse in other ways." He chuckles. "The Italians are such bad administrators."
Doctors were allowed the run of the camp, and soon Steptoe was passing escape plans and messages as the compound go-between. "I was very important, "he said with a laugh . . ." I mustn't escape myself, it was explained, because I was to coordinate or integrate plans." After one big escape, the Italians finally put two and two together and "clamped me in solitary." After a week in a small room with a straw mattress and no light, Steptoe heard the gentle sounds of the prison carolers singing to him. It was Christmas 1942 and the Italians became as sentimental as everyone and let him out of solitary. he was soon exchanged. "I happened to be the first British naval surgeon captured and therefore was No. 1 on the list of exchange of Italian doctors."
Back in London - "where I was more frightened of the bombs dropping overhead than I was on the ship when we were in action - Steptoe met and married his wife, continued his specialist training, then moved out of London to outside Manchester.
"London was such a rat race after the war. So many of us discharged, trying to take up careers again. Must have been 500 of us young gynecologists trying to get a foothold."
Steptoe's practice led to his studies and interest in methods of sterility and, conversely, problems of infertility. And then the "oppositions, setbacks and obstructions" Steptoe's mother had once mentioned became real.
Steptoe was a pioneer in the use of the aparoscope - a narrow tube with a telescope eyepiece and light that can be inserted into a woman's abdomen. A doctor can examine and then retrieve an egg cell through the aparoscope, which is also used in sterilization.
The president of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology denounced laparoscopy. "I was failry junior member and didn't agree. All they saw was the difficulties. In those days it was done under local anesthesia and they saw the hot lights which were used for two or three minutes and it was a smash and a grab and they said, 'No.' But it was a mahvelous idea. Brilliant.It was just a matter of those bad things being replaced and adapting the technology, so I decided to adopt that. But because of this inference of the president, I dare not go into print until I had done sufficient cases. So I worked for five years before I published my first paper. That was about in 1965."
This advancement in the use of the laparoscope eventually led to a decade of trial and error before Steptoe and Edwards brought Louise Brown into the world this summer.
In simplified form, Steptoe, by use of the laparoscope, extracted an egg from Mrs. Brown's ovary. Edwards then fertilized it with her husband's sperm in a nutrient placed in a glass dish. When the embryo divided into several cells after a few days, Steptoe reinserted it into its mother's womb.
Steptoe tries to educate the press from calling Louise Brown a "test tube baby." The implication of test tube means that you fertilize the egg outside the body and develop it to a full-term baby outside the body."
Steptoe says the feat might not have been possible without the work of Edwards. "He was brought out of the backroom laboratory; he can't practice medicine, and I as a clinician can't do anything without his scientific background."
They fought heavy odds in their research. Edwards was 120 miles away in Cambridge. They could get no funding - "even after we first fertilized an egg, got it to grow and cleave. The Medical Research Council turned us down on the advice of certain scientists and gynecologists, some of them Catholic. They said we needed more animal research, particularly with subhuman primates. Edwards pointed out a lot of animal experiments had been done and veterinarians were practicing the procedure all the time.
"Besides, testing gorillas was out of the question! No one could afford to buy gorillas. Chimpanzees were far too expensive these days."
Despite being turned down, the team continued working. "They said we could have some premises at this little hospital. You won't believe this. At first they said you could have the use of one bed. Can you imagine?Having to fit the women in with their cycles and Edwards on his trips from Cambridge. One bed. It's unbelieveable. We always bent the rules."
They found an unused operating facility - "it mustn't to contaminated" - and set up their cultural preparation and incubation laboratory. "Money was so restricted that Edwards had to use his own money to hire a motor car and he and his technicians had to pay for their food and accommodations when they came to the hospital."
Steptoe found no trouble in finding willing women, childless and desperate to have families. "We explained their contribution might not lead to then having a baby themselves. It would at least be a little bit more contribution on the road to helping somebody."
Some 200 women later, the experiments worked. He details the frustration. "First, you get a fertilization, then a pregnancy. Then it doesn't continue. Then you generally increase your rate of everything. We found we were beginning to get successful implantation. But there were difficulties. So we sat down and went through all our material and said, 'We are going to change that and that and that' and see if we could solve the one remaining problem. About a year ago we modified our methods and this led to the successful pregnancy," says Steptoe, reluctant yet to reveal all his methods.
Steptoe's eyes light up as he recalls that moment when he and Edwards, years ago, made a remarkable breakthrough. Edwards was fascinated with the laparoscopy method. "Can you really look at all these things, can you put things in (fallopian) tubes, can you take things out of tubes?" he was saying. He was looking to put eggs and sperm together in the tubes. We started putting some eggs from donor women into the tubes of a woman going to have a hysterectomy and then we would excise them and recover them. We began to get good results, but no pregnanices. Then came that great day in 1968.
When Lesley Brown and her husband John, a 38-year-old truck driver, and their baby were splashed across the front page of every newspaper and on television around the world last summer, a gathering storm of religious protest culminated in a denunciation by Pope Paul.
"Pope Paul said it was absolutely unnatural." Steptoe cannot resist a twinkle and a deep chuckle. "With, ah, one notable exception," he says, referring to the Virgin birth. "I suppose I shouldn't joke about that."
"But the last late Pope said he thought the Brown family might well find merit in the eyes of God. I think that was his acknowledgment that this baby was born in love; that it was the love of the patients and their strong motivation for the child and to have a family that was the main driving force."
Steptoe, however, understands and sharest he concern of those who fear there will now be "factories for babies. The greatest problems are the legal implications. Not so much for the parents having their own child. There is just so much loose talk of surrogate mothers and fathers. This (method) should only be done on the strictest of medical gounds. It has to be properly controlled."
Steptoe is equally upset by the publicity that he benefited from the money paid to the Browns. "We never made any money off the media. None at all," although Steptoe says he and Edwards are now negotiating on a book.
"The joke is that the British journalists were busily fertilizing each other's rumors and implanting them in each other's newspapers. The Medical Journal even made a snide remark, implying the doctors were lining their pockets. It is absolutely untrue."
The publicity surrounding the birth was a "sad story." Unfortunely someone in the press got hold of the names and addresses of our patients.
Speaking as a concerned third party to the birth, Steptoe said, "We hoped we could have it privately. Unfortunately that wasn't to be." Steptoe told the parents that their privacy would be violated and there would be some protection from all the press if they signed on with one outfit.
"The first real nuisance was the National Enquirer. They came with offers of $500,000 and then others started uping that. They wanted to sing us (Edwards and Stepto) up and we said no. They wanted absolute exclusivity - and they wanted the baby born in America!"
Despite all the outrageous figure swirling around the Browns' media contract, Steptoe said they finally settled for 100,000 pounds with one outfit.
Steptoe predicts there will be so many similar births in the future that "if the media leaves her alone." Louise Brown will eventually be allowed to grow up as any other child.
As for himself, Steptoe would have liked this success to have happened at least two years ago. Unfortunately, a concides with his retirement and he will no longer have any facilities to continue his work.
He will write his book, and hopes to raise enough funds to set up a private clinic and to continue helping to create babies for grateful families.
He will also continue his "avoid following of the cinema, the theater and the opera, with my wife. We are just waiting for things to settle down."
Aware all along of the possibilities - the bad as well as the good - of his research, Steptoe says, "This did not deter us. Because the search for knowledge of human reproduction will always go on, and doctors will always continue to help people who have problems with reproduction.
"This," says Steptoe, unsuccessfully hiding his pride as he delivers the understatement, "is merely a development."