Maud Leonore Menten, Pioneering Bioscientist and Pathologist
Ahead of her time, Maud Menten was a physician, pathologist, bioscientist and professor. Her scientific discoveries included the Michaelis-Menten Equation.
Beautiful, brilliant and artistic, Maud Menten not only could create exhibit-worthy paintings and learn languages with ease, she also had the insatiably curious mind of a scientist. Imbued with a zest for life, the young woman immersed herself in the field of biochemistry and medicine, quietly stretching the limits of the sciences.
Born in Port Lambton, Ontario on March 20, 1879, Maud Leonore Menten’s family moved to Harrison Mills, British Columbia when she was a child. Captain William Menten, Maud’s father, operated the ferry service across the Fraser River to the regional hub of Chilliwack. The Mentens also ran a hotel and general store, and Maud’s mother, Emma, was the local postmistress. Maud’s father died suddenly in 1903 from blood poisoning at age 59.
Chemistry and Medicine for Maud Menten
On completing her schooling in B.C., Maud moved across the country to attend the University of Toronto. Earning a BA in 1904, the avid student continued her education, receiving an M.B. degree in medicine three years later; her Master’s research centred on chloride distribution in nerve cells.
In 1907, Maud was appointed to the one-year post of Fellow at New York City’s Rockfeller Institute for Medical Research where, said the Journal of Chemical Education, “she studied the effect of radium on tumours.” Returning to Toronto, Maud received a degree in Medicine in 1911, giving her the title of Dr. Maud Menten.
The Michaelis-Menten Equation
Sailing to Europe, Maud began work with fellow biochemist Dr. Leonor Michaelis at the University of Berlin. Her time in Germany in 1912 became a defining moment for the extraordinary woman. A mathematical equation developed by the two scientists provided a basic concept to analyse observations of enzyme reactions.
The equation was dubbed the Michaelis-Menten equation, the pair earned international recognition for their discovery. Maud also participated in the development of methods for isolation and description of the behaviours of proteins. The advancements made in the early 1900s remain a fundamental part of the chemical science field today, providing a standard measurement of enzyme kinetics.
Doctorate of Biochemistry for Maud Menten
After a year of research at Western Reserve University, Maud dove into cancer research in 1915 at the Barnard Skin and Cancer Hospital of St. Louis, Missouri. Continuing to expand and learn in her field of specialty, Maud enrolled at the University of Chicago, earning a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1916. The high-level degree permitted the 39-year-old woman to take a post with the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical School as an instructor and demonstrator in pathology.
Promoted to assistant professor in 1925, teaching the intricacies of pathology in daily lab sessions and lectures was not enough to fill Maud’s days. She took on a second post at the same time with the children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. As haematologist, surgical pathologist and autopsy pathologist, Maud still found time to help any who asked. Finally reaching the pinnacle of her career, she was at last promoted to full professor at the University of Pittsburgh in 1949. Maud had achieved many new findings, such as “detecting the hyperglycaemic effects of salmonella toxins and the value of immunization in treating animals with infectious diseases,” noted Merna Forster in “100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces.”
Her enthusiasm for discovery caused Maud to push others to stretch their abilities. “I’ve stirred them up so now I can go,” Forster quoted Maud. The words were “Dr. Menten’s frequent exclamation as she scurried out of a lab, having directed the scientists to work harder or try a new approach in their research.”
Menten Achieved Tenure… at Retirement Age
Maud’s work led her to techniques in haemoglobin electrophoresis and to conclusions in azo-dye coupling reactions, histochemistry and much more. Over her long career, the dedicated physician and scientist wrote and co-wrote more than 70 research papers. Unfortunately, when Maud reached the goal of tenure, she was nearly 70 years old. She retired a year later in 1950.
Her days and mind seemingly filled with the minutiae of the human condition, Maud somehow managed to find space for other diverse pastimes. A fine artist, her colourful paintings were on exhibit in Pittsburgh galleries. Exuberant with life, “Maud loved mountain climbing, Arctic exhibitions, homemade scones, Paris hats, and Buster Brown shoes,” said Forster. An exuberantly ahead of her time, Maud bought a Model T Ford, driving the dusty roadways and streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1918 to 1950. Her vast intelligence allowed Maud to learn several languages, from French and Italian to German and Russian. Music also held a place in Maud’s heart, and she was adept at playing the clarinet.
On retirement, Maud returned to British Columbia, working on cancer research at the Medical Institute of British Columbia in Vancouver from 1950 to 1954. Becoming unwell, she left medicine and moved to Leamington, Ontario, not far from her birthplace of Port Lambton. Dr. Maud Leonore Menten, M.D., Ph.D. died there on July 17, 1960.
Dr. Maud Menten an Inspiration for All
Recognized posthumously, Maud’s exceptional work was honoured with an Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque near the University of Toronto. Inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1998, she is also remembered through the University of Western Ontario’s Menten Memorial Lecture Series. A leader for women and men alike, Maud’s life was an example of the amazing inspiration and imprint that a single dedicated professional could make in her field.
Forster, Merna, “Maude Menten, the Brilliance of a Biochemist,” 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces, Dundurn Press, Toronto 2004
“Maude Leonora Menten,” Who Named It Accessed August 31, 2010
“Maude Lenora Menten,” Biographical Snapshots of Famous Women and Minority Chemists, Journal of Chemical Education Accessed August 31, 2010
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2010. Copyright Susanna McLeod