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August 6, 2010

A first for the first

Elizabeth Comeau, the United States’ first in vitro baby, born in 1981, now has a son of her own

David Carr

Elizabeth Comeau, the United States’ first in vitro baby, born in 1981, now has a son of her own

This story was is from the Boston Globe archives, and was originally published on August 6, 2010.

People have followed my life all my life. I mean, ALL my life.

PBS cameras taped my birth, and I attended my first press conference at 3 days old - I yawned through the entire thing. My baby face appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and stories appeared in many newspapers worldwide, including The Boston Globe, where I now work on its website.

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I don’t have a baby book - I have five volumes of newspaper headlines and VHS tapes from television announcements worldwide.

Now, nearly 29 years from my birth as the first test-tube baby in the United States, I have my own baby.

When the phones started ringing a few weeks ago, I knew I had a choice: Either write about it myself - though I’ve been uncomfortable about my celebrity - or have someone else do it.

My family and I have often joked about what the headline would read, with fears of “Test-tube baby has test-tube baby” in bold black letters across the top of a page.

However, I had a normal conception and pregnancy despite my abnormal childhood. And early yesterday, my husband and I had a baby boy “the normal way,” proving (I hope) that I’m just like everyone else.

I didn’t ask to be America’s first test-tube baby. On Dec. 28, 1981, it just happened. My parents and doctors did all the hard work.

In school, friends knew I was an in-vitro baby - what that actually meant they weren’t sure. I was never teased, but some people would want to sit next to me at the high-school homecoming football game because a camera was there following me around.

Judith Carr of Westminster Ma. with her new baby Elizabeth, the nation’s first test tube baby.

George Rizer/Boston Globe/File 1982

Judith Carr of Westminster Ma. with her new baby Elizabeth, the nation’s first test tube baby.

It’s a little embarrassing, too, to have that Life magazine cover staring out in the hallway of your parents home when your prom date comes to pick you up. Or, to go out to a supermarket in college and have a friend ask, “E, is that you?” holding up a tabloid with my photo.

Even though I had all this media attention, my parents said they weren’t going to raise a prima donna. I had to wash dishes, take out the garbage. I had jobs while I was in high school and college.

But I’ve never been able to shake the follow-up stories. Not at 10 years old, nor when graduating from high school, nor Simmons College.

After marriage, I changed my name from Elizabeth Carr to Elizabeth Comeau. I must admit, the media attention was a consideration, despite a career in journalism and the recognition my maiden name had among sources and in the industry. The result? I had a few years under the radar, and my husband, David, and I lived a quiet life in Maine.

So why write about it now? I follow the same principle my parents did: If my story helps couples or families learn about in-vitro fertilization, then the loss of privacy is worthwhile. People who have fertility issues deserve to know they can have healthy, normal babies.

We hope our son’s life will be a happy, quiet existence. But we also hope he learns about all the people in our lives we’ve met and come to love because of my “test-tube” title.

Two years ago, David and I went to Virginia to see Howard Jones, the doctor who started the IVF clinic in Norfolk where I was born. My mother had had three ecptopic pregnancies and was told she could probably never conceive a child naturally. At the time, there had been a successful IVF birth in England, but not in the United States. Dr. Jones and his wife, Georgeanna, decided to change that and started their program in Norfolk. Although people in Massachusetts were trying to start an IVF program, the procedure was illegal in the state then, so my parents traveled to Virginia to pursue having a baby.

Our 2008 visit was like a family trip, because Jones is more like a grandfather than a doctor to me. It was important to me that my husband and the man who perfected the technology to bring me into this world meet. I still get phone calls from Jones, now 99, on my birthday and Christmas - or during major life events - and we visit our “family” in Norfolk whenever we can.

The local media, of course, took the visit as a chance to write a “test-tube baby homecoming” story.

As we prepared to have a child, my husband and I knew our lives might once again be thrust into the spotlight. I have been the story for so long.

In fact, all I want is to tell others’ stories. My parents were the first to notice that.

After having questions thrown at me so often, I would, from a very young age, turn the interview around and ask the reporter about his or her job. After working on my high school and college papers, I interned at The Virginian-Pilot and The Boston Globe, and worked at the Poynter Institute writing about media coverage. Later, I covered towns and schools for the Kennebec (Maine) Journal, and since January 2008, have helped run the home page and news coverage at Boston.com.

Louise Brown, the world’s first test tube baby, has also married and had a baby and it’s interesting to me to see what her life has become, so I understand that it’s natural for people to wonder “What ever happened to so-and-so?”

It’s the type of story I would write myself.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Elizabeth Comeau delivered Trevor James Comeau at 2:05 a.m. yesterday. He weighed 7 pounds, 12 ounces. Mother, baby - and father - are doing fine, though not quite up to being photographed by the Globe yesterday. Comeau wrote this article before going into labor and updated it by e-mail yesterday.

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