Menten, Maud L.

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Maud L. Menten

A native of Canada, Maud L. Menten (1879-1960) is a little-known scientist who discovered an equation that has been hailed as a foundation in the modern study of enzymology. As a researcher, Menten made many co-discoveries relating to blood sugar, hemoglobin, and kidney functions. She also worked as a professor and pathologist, and enjoyed diverse pastimes, including mountain climbing and the study of foreign languages. Menten was one of the first Canadian women to earn a medical degree.

Menten was born March 20, 1879, in Port Lambton, Ontario, Canada. Little is known about her parents and childhood other than that the Menten family moved to Harrison Mills, where Maud's mother worked as a postmistress. After completing secondary school, Menten attended the University of Toronto where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1904 and a master's degree in physiology in 1907. While earning her graduate degree, she worked as a demonstrator in the university's physiology lab.

A talented student, Menten was appointed a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City in 1907. There, she studied the effect of radium bromide on cancerous tumors in rats. Menten and two other scientists published the results of their experiment, producing the institute's first monograph. After a year at the Institute, Menten worked as an intern at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She returned to Canada and began studies at the University of Toronto a year later. In 1911 she became one of the first Canadian women to receive a doctor of medicine degree.

Discovered Michaelis-Menten Equation

In 1912, Menten boarded a ship and traveled to Berlin, Germany, where she worked with Dr. Leonor Michaelis at the University of Berlin. The following year she and Michaelis coauthored a paper on chemical kinetics that was published in Biochemische Zietschrift. The paper described the Michaelis-Menten equation, a concept that quickly changed the study of biochemistry and for which Menten as well as her German coauthor earned worldwide recognition.

The Michaelis-Menten equation is a tool for measuring the rates of enzyme reactions. Proteins called enzymes control the chemical reactions which maintain the life of cells. Menten's 1913 formula gave scientists a way to record how enzymes worked. According to Pittmed, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine magazine, the equation is the standard for most subsequent enzyme-kinetic measurements. The rate is basic knowledge for biochemistry students and is routinely used in research laboratories.

Menten also worked as a research fellow at Western Reserve University with Dr. George Crile. In 1915 she spent a year performing cancer research at the Barnard Skin and Cancer Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, and in 1916 she added to her academic credits with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Chicago.

Armed with her doctorate, Menten joined the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh as an instructor in 1918, delivering one-third of the school's daily pathology lectures and attending all lab sections. She remained at the university until her retirement in 1950, and was promoted to full professor in 1948 at the age of sixty-nine.

In addition to her teaching duties at the University of Pittsburgh, Menten also was a pathologist at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh from 1926 to 1950. Her work at Children's Hospital involved three positions: surgical pathologist, post-mortem pathologist, and haematologist. In these positions she became familiar with many cases and worked hard on behalf of her young patients. Pediatric residents often sought her advice, and she was always available to them.

Juggling her work as a pathologist, a researcher, and a professor, Menten often worked 18-hour days. A tireless researcher, she had little patience for scientists who had no new ideas. Rebecca Skloot in Pittmed reported that Menten said of a famous physician who had won the Nobel prize, "What has he done since?" She is also said to have let loose with a tirade in a lab of scientists who she thought were not working hard enough.

Many Important Discoveries

With her questioning intellect, Menten never ran out of research ideas or problems to tackle. The Michaelis-Menten equation is the best known of her works, but it was not her only important discovery. She authored or coauthored more than 70 research papers throughout her career. Other wellknown accomplishments in the lab included Menten's 1924 discovery, with scientific colleague Helen Manning, that salmonella toxins raised blood glucose levels. In 1944 she partnered with Andersch Wilson to use electrophoresis—the use of an electric charge—to separate different proteins, in this case adult hemoglobin from fetal hemoglobin. Although Menten used the electrophoresis technique in 1944, noted scientist Linus Pauling employed it a few years later; through his renown and outspoken position in the scientific community Pawling has been credited with discovering the technique.

In 1944, together with scientists with Junge and Green, Menten discovered the azo-dye coupling reaction, which has since become a routine tool in biological research and diagnostic medicine. Menten's discovery opened up the field of enzyme histochemistry.

Menten published papers on potassium in cells, oxidases, vitamin C, streptococcal toxins, histochemistry of glycogen, and nucleic acids in bone marrow. She also published papers in other disciplines, including physiology, chemotherapy, hematology and pathology.

Woman of Diverse Interests

Skloot portrays Menten as a petite dynamo of a woman who wore "Paris hats, blue dresses with stained-glass hues, and Buster Brown shoes." She drove a Model T Ford through the University of Pittsburgh area for some 32 years and enjoyed many adventurous and artistic hobbies. She played the clarinet, painted paintings worthy of art exhibitions, climbed mountains, went on an Arctic expedition, and enjoyed astronomy. She also mastered several languages, including Russian, French, German, Italian, and at least one Native-American language.

Although Menten did most of her research in the United States, she retained her Canadian citizenship throughout her life. After her retirement from the University of Pittsburgh in 1950, she returned to Canada where she continued to do cancer research at the British Columbia Medical Research Institute. Poor health forced Menten's retirement in 1955, and she died July 20, 1960, at the age of 81, in Leamington, Ontario.

Throughout her career Menten was affiliated with many scientific societies, and in 1998 she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. She was also honored at the University of Toronto with a plaque and at the University of Pittsburgh with memorial lectures and a named chair.

At Menten's death, colleagues Aaron H. Stock and Anna-Mary Carpenter honored the Canadian biochemist in an obituary in Nature: "Menten was untiring in her efforts on behalf of sick children. She was an inspiring teacher who stimulated medical students, resident physicians and research associates to their best efforts. She will long be remembered by her associates for her keen mind, for a certain dignity of manner, for unobtrusive modesty, for her wit, and above all for her enthusiasm for research."

Books

Notable Women Scientists, Gale, 2000.

Ogilvie, Marilyn, and Joy Harvey, editors, Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, Routledge, 2000, pp. 882-883.

Periodicals

Pittmed, October, 2000.

Nature, March 25, 1961, p. 965.

Online

"Dr. Maud Menton," Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Web site,http://www.cdnmedhall.org/inductees/menten_98.htm (July 12, 2002).

"Maud Leonora Menton," Who Named It,http://www.whonamedit.com/dpctpr/cf,2091.html (November 10, 2003).