Maud Menten was a biochemical and medical researcher who co-devised one of the fundamental models in enzyme kinetics.
Maud Menten did extensive work in medical and biochemical research in the early twentieth century. Much of her work was medical research, but it was founded on her expertise in biochemistry and she made some significant contributions as a biochemist. Most of her work isn’t as well-known as it should be, but there is one piece that will never be forgotten: her work with Leonor Michaelis in 1913. Together they produced the famous Michaelis-Menten equation, one of the fundamental concepts in enzyme kinetics.
A Canadian, Menten achieved her Master's degree at the University of Toronto in 1907. According to various reports, opportunities were scarce at the time for women who wanted to conduct research in Canada, and Menten left the country in 1907 to join the Rockefeller Institute. She always retained her Canadian citizenship, but from then on, most of her research was conducted in the USA.
She stayed in New York for a year, researching the effects of radium bromide on tumours. Radium compounds were still new to science, having been discovered barely ten years earlier by Marie and Pierre Curie. When she and two others published the results, it was the Rockefeller Institute's first published monograph.
When Menten left the institute, she returned to Canada to study medicine. In 1911, she became one of the first women in Canada to qualify as a medical doctor. By 1912, she was back in research, working with a reknowned surgeon named George Crile. They worked on the control of acid-base balance during anaesthesia, and at this point she began communicating with Leonor Michaelis, one of the world-leading experts in pH and buffers.
Work with Michaelis
Michaelis was a German scientist, doing his research from the Hospital am Urban in Berlin. It can’t have been an easy decision to cross the ocean and work with him, especially in the same year that the Titanic had sunk, but Menten pressed on. She very likely crossed the ocean at her own expense (Michaelis had no paid position at the time) and she may have taken a paid position at the hospital to cover her living costs. The idea that she learnt enough German to work directly with German patients is certainly plausible; Menten was an accomplished linguist. By the time she died, she spoke six languages.
Working together, Menten and Michaelis studied enzyme kinetics. Enzymes are responsible for an enormous range of chemical reactions in living organisms, and enzyme kinetics is the study of how fast these reactions progress. Enzymes were an extremely new field in biochemistry at the time, and researchers were just beginning to explore their behaviour. Michaelis and Menten developed an equation to model and predict the rates of an enzyme-driven reaction. Their equation is perhaps the oldest, and certainly the best known model of enzyme kinetics: their model set the terminology for all future discussions. Textbooks now divide the topic into "Michaelis-Menten kinetics" and "non-Michaelis-Menten kinetics".
Maud Menten didn't stop at just one famous equation. She went back to the USA to obtain her PhD in 1916, and made a career at the University of Pittsburgh. She studied histochemistry and paediatric pathology, and became a pathologist at the Pittsburgh Children's Hospital in 1926. Across her career, she authored or co-authored approximately 100 research papers. She is credited for having conducted the first separation of proteins by electrophoresis, and she developed a staining method using azo dyes that is still used in histochemistry today. A leading textbook described it as 'a touch of genius'.
She was awarded a professorship at the University of Pittsburgh in 1950, and is remembered there in the names of the annual Maud L. Menten Lecture and the Maud L. Menten Professorship. She spent the last few years of her working life pursuing cancer research in her native Canada.
She was an accomplished musician, artist and linguist, and she once joined an Arctic expedition. She was described as a "dynamo", known to have been demanding and tough to please. She encouraged the best from anyone who worked for her, and she expected to get it.
Menten seems to have been utterly unstoppable: the story goes that when she drove her Model T Ford near Pittsburgh University, everyone in the area recognised it. And everyone got out of her way.
Words by Douglas Winship
Thumbnail image courtesy University of Toronto Archives (2003-59-1MS); main image © Smithsonian Institution (www.si.edu)/Maud Leonora Menten (1879-1960)
Published May 2015