The female scientist

Topic: The female scientist who changed human fertility forever

She was the first person to successfully fertilise a human egg in vitro, changing reproductive medicine forever – but few people know her name today.

In the textbook tale of scientific discovery, the researcher works late into the night, alone in their lab. Suddenly, genius strikes: an apple to the head, a lightning strike to a key, a contaminated petri dish. And eureka: discovery!

The Miriam Menkin story is a little different. One Tuesday in February 1944, the 43-year-old lab technician was up all night soothing her eight-month-old daughter – “an in vivo specimen”, she liked to say – who had just started teething. The next morning, Menkin went into her lab, just as she had every week for the past six years. Wednesdays were when she introduced a newly washed egg to a cloud of sperm solution in a glass dish and prayed that two would become one.

As a technician for Harvard fertility expert John Rock, Menkin’s goal was to fertilise an egg outside the human body. This was the first step in Rock’s plan to cure infertility, which remained a scientific mystery to doctors. He particularly wanted to help women who had healthy ovaries but damaged fallopian tubes – the cause of one-fifth of the infertility cases he saw in his clinic.

Usually, Menkin exposed the sperm and egg to each other for around 30 minutes. Not this time. Years later, she recalled what transpired to a reporter: “I was so exhausted and drowsy that, while watching under the microscope how the sperm were frolicking around the egg, I forgot to look at the clock until I suddenly realised that a whole hour had elapsed… In other words, I must admit that my success, after nearly six years of failure, was due – not to a stroke of genius – but simply to cat-napping on the job!”

On Friday, when she came back to the lab, she saw something miraculous: the cells had fused and were now dividing, giving her the world’s first glimpse of a human embryo fertilised in glass.

Menkin’s achievement would usher in a new era of reproductive technology – one in which infertile women became pregnant, children were conceived in tubes, and scientists peered into the earliest stages of life. In 1978, the world would meet its first in vitro baby, Louise Brown, conceived by what was by then known as IVF (in vitro fertilisation). Soon IVF was a big business: in 2017, IVF made up the majority of the 284,385 attempts at assisted reproduction in the US, resulting in 78,052 babies like Brown.

Despite the way she told the story, Menkin’s success was no accident. Like those other great moments of discovery, getting there took years of research, hard-won technical skills, and the patience to repeat the same experiment over and over again. She would go on to write or co-author 18 scientific papers, including two historic reports on that first success in the journal Science. But unlike her co-author Rock, she would not go on to become a household name.

Topic Discussed: The female scientist who changed human fertility forever

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