Miriam Menkin: Woman Wednesday

Fertility Scientist

At Alcea, we love women, we love history, and we love learning about third-party reproduction and how it has changed over the years. Miriam Menkin, the scientist who created the baseline process that facilitates IVF hits all the high notes. Let’s take a deep dive into her history!

Fertility Pioneer

Miriam Menkin (1901 – 1992) was a scientist who was most famous for her in vitro fertilization (IVF) research. In February 1944, she became the first person to conceive human life outside of the body.

Menkin was born on August 8, 1901, in Riga, Latvia. Her family moved to the US two years later. In 1922, Menkin graduated from Cornell University with an undergraduate degree in histology and comparative anatomy. She attended Columbia University and earned a master’s degree in genetics. She taught for a short period while setting her sights on medical school. Women were rarely admitted to medical school at the time and she wasn’t accepted.

Menkin ended up finishing the Harvard Ph.D. requirements two separate times but did not receive a degree because she could not afford the course fees.

Menkin served as a pathology research fellow at Harvard Medical School from 1930-1935 and worked as a tech for Gregory Pincus at Harvard. While working for Pincus, Menkin was tasked with preparing extracts designed to superovulate rabbits in Pincus’ quest to create “fatherless” rabbits. Pincus lost his tenure at Harvard in 1937, which left her without a job. She worked in the state labs for a year and then applied for a research position w/John Rock, a fertility doctor, in Boston. The Pincus’ experiments had been a factor in Rock’s decision to start IVF research, and Menkin’s role in the experiments caught Rock’s eye. Rock hired Menkin and they set out to determine the exact time ovulation occurs. Rock hadn’t made meaningful progress in research before hiring Menk to oversee lab work.

Starting in 1938, the duo requested women participating in the study, who were scheduled to undergo hysterectomies, have unprotected sex prior to the surgery. They elected to carry out the surgical procedures just before ovulation, which resulted in many suitable ova for the study. She made variations to the procedure every so often and for 6 years of the study, didn’t achieve IVF. In ’44, she mistakenly washed the sperm sample only 1X, used a more concentrated sample, and allowed (1) hour of interaction. The following Friday., Menkin found that cell cleavage had begun.

Merkin had to leave the field for a good portion of her life, and Rock dedicated more of his career to advocating and studying birth control, but their contributions set the stage for infertility research that has led us to where we are in the field today.

Learn more about Menkin here. Keep learning, keep pushing, and keep supporting women in STEM. You too can change the world.