Uncovered. The IVF millionaire whose generosity has helped millions of people become parents

With July 2018 marking the 40th anniversary of the first IVF birth it has been revealed for the first time that an American millionaire was the reason it was all possible 

Lillian Lincoln Howell, who was successful in the television industry in China and Japan, funded Sir Bob Edwards’ research in the 1970s to the tune of £500,000 in today’s money.

Her generosity was uncovered at the Cheltenham Science Festival by Dr Kay Elder, an IVF researcher who had searched the archives of the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridgeshire.

Lillian herself went through fertility struggles and wanted to help the IVF pioneers to create the first IVF baby, Louise Brown in 1978 – a medical miracle.

But she insisted on remaining anonymous for the entirety of her lifetime and since Louise was born six million babies have been conceived through the IVF process.

Sir Bob Edwards, Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy had no money to fund their research into IVF and due to its controversial nature at the time, the Medical Research Council refused to help fund it until 1982.

Dr Elder said: “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.”

Lillian died in 2014 aged 93 and her Foundation has helped to uncover people’s stories from across the world.

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