A Woman to Know: Miriam Menkin

She was a scientist, with a scientist’s mind, and a scientist’s precision. — Margaret Marsh

She was a scientist, with a scientist’s mind, and a scientist’s precision. — Margaret Marsh

(image via Harvard University)

In 1938, Miriam Menkin joined John Rock’s laboratory in Boston. His group had one goal: attempt the first-ever fertilization of a human egg in a laboratory. After years of attempts, however, Rock and his fellow scientists hit failure after failure — then, one day in 1944, the new IVF researcher (Miriam!) finally succeeded.

But, as she explained, in one interview, the circumstances under which it happened were quite unexpected

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 realized 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!

Miriam now knew the secret to success involved allowing the egg and sperm to interact for a longer period of time than previously thought. She attempted again three more times, all successes. She called the results “her pride and joy.”

John Rock and his colleagues celebrated Miriam’s discovery, but she wouldn’t stay at the lab for much longer. Just one year later, when her husband suddenly lost his job, Mr. Menkin packed up the family and moved to North Carolina. At the time, gender roles dictated Miriam move where her husband, a prominent doctor, and his work took him, so she left behind her life in the IVF lab.

The move meant Miriam was now living in a conservative state that referred to her laboratory work “rape in vitro.” She reached out to researchers at multiple universities asking for work and continued to collaborate with Rock on papers and articles, but she struggled to find purpose.

Eventually, she divorced her husband and moved back to Boston, but her years outside of the laboratory made it difficult for her to find work. Rock had moved beyond IVF research to contraceptive study. He gave her work as his “literary assistant,” so she edited his articles for the remainder of her career.

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