'Mum didn't realise how big it was for me to be Scotland's first IVF baby ...'

WEIGHING in at five pounds 12 ounces, when Alastair MacDonald was born at Stobhill Hospital on January 14, 1979, the event made headline news around the globe.

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Alastair MacDonald is now a systems engineering officer with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary - 35 years after becoming Scotland's first 'test tube' baby
Alastair MacDonald is now a systems engineering officer with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary - 35 years after becoming Scotland's first 'test tube' baby

The arrival of Scotland's first test-tube baby, and the first boy born after IVF treatment, cemented the success of a pioneering medical treatment that has gone on to change the lives of childless couples forever.

It is no surprise that it is a double celebration for Alastair when he marks his birthday as he raises a glass to the innovative techniques that brought him into the world.

"It has changed the lives of so many people, I feel very proud to be a part of it," he says from his Glasgow home ahead of his 35th birthday.

"I have friends who have had babies using IVF. When you meet people and say, I was an IVF baby, they say, you must have been one of the first, and I say, actually, yes I was.

"It's lovely that it has become such an everyday occurrence now, it is giving people happiness as they wouldn't have had children any other way."

Alastair was born a month premature but when he arrived a doctor at Stobhill announced: "It was a natural birth. Everything is perfect."

For Alastair's mum Grace, from Denny in Stirlingshire, it was the perfect ending to her involvement in a medical project so secret even her friends and family didn't know about it.

She was one of dozens of women recruited for Dr Patrick Steptoe and Dr Robert Edwards' trials at Oldham General Hospital. Grace had been told she was infertile in 1972 but never gave up hope.

"I just kept thinking, they must come up with something to help," she says. "I was at a friend's house, and they had a copy of the Lancet medical journal lying around open on a page with a report about the research project."

She started the treatment programme in 1975 but it wasn't until 1978, on the second cycle of treatment, that Grace produced one egg which was successfully fertilised. She remained in Oldham for two months, her family convinced she was getting special treatment for cancer as she couldn't tell them about the trial, considered controversial at the time.

"When I got home and was able to share the good news, my family thought the pregnancy was natural. I didn't tell them otherwise. Not even the staff at Stobhill, with the exception of my doctor, knew."

The world's press followed every birthday and step in the life of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby born a few months before Alastair. It meant he was left to grow up out of the limelight.

"I think that was quite a good thing," he considers. "It's weird to think about really but it just feels normal to me. I don't feel any different to anybody else.

"At the time I don't think my mum realised how big a thing it was.

"She didn't think she was going to be lucky enough to have a child through it. As far as my mum was concerned, it was so pioneering she was just one of many involved in the trials. I think when Louise came along she realised how revolutionary IVF would be."

Alastair was nine when he learned just how special a baby he was, after the death of Dr Steptoe who Alastair thought of as uncle Patrick.

"I think my mum was stunned at how well I took on board what IVF was at such a young age," he remembers. "I did feel very special at the time, even at that age, realising I wouldn't have been born if it wasn't for that technology."

He says he feel privileged to have known Dr Edwards and Dr Steptoe. "Before Bob passed away I saw him fairly regularly," he says. "It was great to have that link with his family too. I get on really well with them."

He remains close friends with Louise Brown, now married with children of her own. "We've been friends for so long now we're just friends rather than having the connections of both being IVF babies," he smiles.

"When we've had different parties or anniversary celebrations over the years it has been lovely to get to know some of the other babies born just after us who are adults now as well. A lot of connections have built up over the years."

They marked their 30th birthdays by visiting the Bourn Hall clinic, Cambridgeshire, which was founded by the IVF pioneers.

A systems engineering officer with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the support service for the Navy, he has been based in the Middle East and the Med. Alastair hopes a recent promotion might take him one step closer to his dream posting on the Falkland Islands.

"It has been great to visit parts of the world I normally wouldn't have gone to," he says. "We always have a ship permanently based near the Falklands and I've never been lucky enough to get down there. I've always wanted to go, take my camera and see the islands."

About five million babies have been born, thanks to IVF, since Louise Brown.

Says Alastair: "I am amazed by what my mum and the other ladies went through. They were all there for one another, spurring each other on so at least one would be successful. I am so proud of my mum and of my place in history."

angela.mcmanus@ eveningtimes.co.uk

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