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The Forgotten Women of Reproductive Health

Reproductive health has come a long way. Back in the day, infertility used to puzzle scientists. They simply could not understand why one couple had better chances of conceiving a child than others. This was a time when IVF did not exist and the idea of “test-tube babies” would appall someone.

I’m glad we have come a long way with regards to social stigma and scientific discoveries. But that would not have been possible without the valuable contributions of various women. Unfortunately, most of these women NEVER got the recognition they deserved unlike their male counterparts. So in this blog post, we want to highlight their scientific achievements. Share this post with others so we can help spread the word!

Image by Sarah Pflug

Miriam Menkin

This is where it all started! Miriam Menkin was a laboratory technician who worked for a fertility expert named John Rock. You might have heard of Rock because he received a lot of the credit for stumbling across IVF when Menkin didn’t. Menkin was always in charge of introducing the sperm to an egg in a petri dish and monitoring it for a half an hour. This one Friday night however, she was exhausted after caring for her own eight month-old at home. She arrived at the lab to do the routine procedure and dozed off while watching the petri dish. When she woke up, an hour had passed! Unfortunately she lost track of time.

When Menkin took a look at the petri dish she couldn’t believe her eyes. The egg and sperm had fertilized! This was the first ever fertilization that had taken place outside of the body. She called for Rock immediately and once he came, he apparently turned pale. They’d finally done it! To preserve the embryo she had to keep adding droplets of liquid to it. She did this in one hand while eating a sandwich in the other. 

Unfortunately, Menkin did not receive much of the credit. Though this discovery certainly had a serendipitous nature, it should not take away from the fact that it were Menkins actions that had led to it. As a single mother, she continued to balance her work and personal life and when Menkin and Rock were flooded with letters by infertile couples about their recent feat, the both of them went off to co-author 18 papers, 2 of which were on this achievement and were published in the journal Science

The lack of recognition for Menkin might arise from a mix of her both being a woman and a lab technician. She did not receive the same praise as her male counterparts who were scientists or doctors. 

She was a scientist, with a scientist’s mind, and a scientist’s precision, and a scientist’s belief in the importance of following protocols” – Margaret Marsh

Jean Purdy

If you know a bit about IVF, then you know that the first IVF baby to ever be born was Louise Brown. Jean Purdy was a nurse/embryologist who was the first person to see the first successful division of the embryo! She was outrageously left off the plaque in the hospital which Brown was born in! The people who did make the plaque were Professor Sir Robert Edwards and the surgeon Patrick Steptoe. Edward’s archives reveal that he wrote to Oldham Area Health Authority in 1980 requesting the plaques in the hospital include Purdy’s name.

It never happened.

The reason for this is because she might not have been viewed as important because she was an embryologist and nurse but not a doctor. If there is anything you should know about IVF, it is that it takes a village to raise an embryo.

Madelin Evans, an archivist, said the letters do not reveal an “explicit reason” why Purdy’s name was omitted but that “it probably had quite a bit to do with the fact she was a nurse, an embryologist and a woman I suppose”.

She died at the age of 39 in 1985, her name not on the plaque.

Muriel Harris

Harris was an operation theater superintendent on the team who was on the team who delivered Louise Brown. Unfortunately, when Harris went on a vacation the doctors decided to move up the birth and perform cesarean section. She missed the birth, but that was not the end of her story.

She might not have been there for that glorified moment, but what she helped do before and after the birth is JUST as important. The team closed down that facility and opened a new facility named Bourn Hall. This was the world’s first IVF clinic! She played a massive role in turning a run down location into a clinic that would grant wishes of many couples struggling with infertility. 

She was not a surgeon or physician and unfortunately that meant she did not get the recognition she deserves. 

Ruth Fowler

Ruth Fowler might not have been directly involved in the first IVF baby’s birther, but she contributed a great deal of research to reproductive medicine in general. She was the grand-daughter of Earnest Rutherford, who himself won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908, for his studies on disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances. Fowler’ mother died shortly after Ruth was born and her father died when she was 13. She had a rough childhood to say the least but that did not stop her from earning her degree in biology at the University of Edinburgh and then working on her PhD on genetics there as well. Fowler and her husband Bob Edwards wrote papers about ways of increasing the number of synchronized eggs recoverable from adult female mice through a series of five papers (1957–1961), on the control of ovulation induced by use of exogenous hormones. This feat of hers helped debunk the common misconception that superovulation of adults was not possible.

Fowler had 5 children but she continued the hustle! She still published more papers about the growth of human embryos in the laboratory, the genetics of early human development and on the progesterone, protein composition of the uterine fluids of the rabbit and the importance in understanding the environment experienced by the preimplantation embryo.

If you thought her papers ended there… well you’re wrong! Fowler continued to write with Edwards throughout even the year the first IVF baby was born! At this time her papers focused on the dynamics and endocrinology of follicular development. It’s hard to keep up with how many topics she delved into! She poured her life and soul into discovering new things and helping reproductive medicine evolve. Her husband received the Nobel laureate while she did not. She deserves more. She was, however, called upon to receive the award when her husband was too ill.

What we need to do

Spread the word. The women in science both in history and present day need more recognition and respect for their work especially women of color. We must encourage more women of color to pursue jobs in STEM and medicine and also acknowledge those who currently in the STEM and medicine fields. 

We also must not follow in the path of the popular medical dramas that portray the wrong image of medicine. They ignore the many different people that are crucial in surgeries, procedures, patient care you name it! Healthcare is never a one man job. Nurses, lab technicians and everyone deserve equal respect. In the rapidly evolving space of science, it’s important the names of those who have contributed great amounts are not lost. 

References:

  1. Martin H. Johnson, IVF: The women who helped make it happen, Reproductive Biomedicine & Society Online, Volume 8, 2019, Pages 1-6, ISSN 2405-6618,

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rbms.2018.11.002.

(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2405661818300431)

  1. “Female nurse who played crucial role in IVF ignored on plaque” by The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/10/jean-purdy-female-nurse-who-played-crucial-role-in-ivf-ignored-on-plaque
  2. “The Female Scientist Who Changes Human Fertility Forever” by BBC Future https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200103-the-female-scientist-who-changed-human-fertility-forever
  3. “Margaret Sanger-Our Founder” by Planned Parenthood https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/9214/7612/8734/Sanger_Fact_Sheet_Oct_2016.pdf
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