Maud Menten

menten

Thanks to Erin Digitale, a science writer at the Stanford University School of Medicine who suggested Maud Menten for Grandma got STEM.  Erin wrote that

she is the “Menten” in the “Michaelis-Menten” equation, which is used to explain much of the behavior of enzymes. She was born and grew up in British Columbia late 19th century; I believe she attended medical school at the University of Toronto, studied in Germany with Michaelis and returned to North America to work at the University of Pittsburgh.

I’ve always wanted to know more about her. I don’t think she had any children or grandchildren, but it was so unusual for a woman of her day to become a biochemist that I think she would make a great subject for your blog.

The picture above is from the website of  the Chemistry Department at Universität zu Köln.  According to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, Maud Menton (1879 –1960) was one of the first Canadian women to receive a medical degree, graduating from the University of Toronto in 1913.

That same year, along with Dr. Leonor Michaelis, Menten introduced a concept that forever changed the study of biological reactions and helped to shape the field of biochemistry. The Michaelis-Menten equation gave scientists a way in which they could mathematically analyze their observations and descriptions of biological reactions. Not content to rest on her remarkable discovery, Menten co-devised what is now the standard method of isolating and describing protein behavior.

The following biographical information is from Whonamedit.

[Menten] had to leave Canada to pursue a career as a research scientist because in those days women were not allowed to do research in Canadian universities. She became a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, and a research fellow at Western Reserve University.

Then, in 1912, she travelled to Europe, joining Leonor Michaelis the University of Berlin. It was the work there that was to give her eternal recognition – the Michaelis-Menten equation. This concept
forever changed the study of biological reactions and helped to shape the field of biochemistry. The Michaelis-Menten equation gave scientists a way in which they could mathematically analyse their observations and descriptions of biological reactions. Not content to rest on her remarkable discovery, Menten co-devised what is now the standard method of isolating and describing protein behaviour.

After one year in Berlin, Menten travelled to the University of Chicago, where she obtained a Ph. D. in biochemistry in 1916. Unable to find an academic position in her native Canada, she joined the medical school at the University of Pittsburgh, and from 1918 Menten continued her brilliant career as a pathologist.

She was appointed assistant professor of pathology in 1923 and was promoted to associate professor in 1925. At the same time, she was clinical pathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. This work was actually three positions: surgical pathologist, post-mortem pathologist, and haematologist. It was commented that “[s]he was made aware of every puzzling or interesting case admitted to the Children’s Hospital during her tenure. The paediatric residents flocked to the laboratory to consult her, and she was never too busy to listen”.

An avid researcher with a keen mind, Menten maintained an active program, authoring and co-authoring more than 70 publications. Among her later work, the two most important contributions were the first use of electrophoretic mobility in studying human haemoglobins, and the use of an azo-dye coupling reaction for the study of alkaline phosphatase in kidneys, published 1944.

She managed to juggle her clinical, teaching and research duties, together with her other responsibilities, by working 18-hour days. George Fetterman, who had been one of his students, commented: “She was full of ideas and highly critical of researchers who ran out of them. With her it was a matter of ‘What have you discovered recently?’ In discussing the career of a world-renown[ed] physician who had been awarded the Nobel prize, Dr. Menten’s comment to me was ‘What has he done since?’ Fortunately, she was much more lenient with medical students than with Nobel prize winners.”

Despite her productivity, promotion to full professor did not come until 1949 when she was 70 years, at the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania. This was one year before her retirement from her position at Pittsburgh. That, however, was not the end of her active research life. In 1950 she returned to Canada and during the years 1951 to 1954 conducted cancer research at the Medical Institute of British Columbia in Vancouver. Because of ill health, Menten in 1954 resigned her position in British Columbia and returned to Ontario where she died on 20 July 1960 at Leamington.

Despite her devotion to her work, her skill and passion for science was complemented by her talents for the arts. Menten still found time for other pursuits. Also, she was fluent in several languages, and very artistic, some of her paintings being exhibited with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, and she was very musical. Her prized possession was a model T-Ford that she drove for many years. She was also an avid mountain climber.

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2 Responses to Maud Menten

  1. Peter Mander says:

    Thank you for posting this.

  2. Berruguinha says:

    Incredible history!
    I’m studying now about her equation in my medical classes. So I decided to learn about Menten’s life. What a brilliant women on such early days, with all the dificulties!
    Jah bless Maud Menten!

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