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Maud Menten

Maud Menten as a young woman. Photo courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Archives and the Science History Institute.

To be the first to do something significant holds a lot of power. Dr. Banting being the first to isolate the life-saving insulin extract then became the first in Canada to receive the Nobel Prize. Being the first garners special attention and a significant place in society at large. In research and development, being first can open doors to further research, innovations, and discoveries, and can strengthen the renown of a  research institution. Maud Menten is a highly celebrated figure today, not only as being among the first Canadian women to become a medical doctor, but also because of her career which includes a lengthy list of other notable ‘firsts’.

Maud Leonara Menten was born in Port Lambton, Ontario in 1879. There is little archival information about Menten’s life story prior to her acquiring a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1904 and a Masters in Physiology in 1907 at the University of Toronto. While pursuing her degree, Menten worked as a laboratory demonstrator at the university’s physiology lab and published her first research with Physiology Professor, Dr. Archibald Macallum, a notable scientist who went on to establish the National Research Council of Canada. Following her graduation, Menten could not find employment in Canada due to her gender[i] and instead joined New York’s Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, where she carried out cancer research and co-published an article on the use of radium bromide for cancer treatment, the results of which were published in the institute’s first monograph. She then returned to the University of Toronto and earned her Medical Doctorate in 1911, becoming Canada’s first woman to do so.

Menten’s landmark designation did not lead to a medical or research practice because of a lack of opportunities for women, and she left Canada once more for the U.S. to work as a Research Fellow at Western Reserve University, with Dr. George Crile. As the most famous surgeon of the U.S. and the founder of the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Crile was the first to carry out successful blood transfusion. Menten collaborated with him on the study of hydrogen-ion concentration in blood to control acid-base balance under anaesthesia influence. Here she found her new passion for biochemistry, and traveled at her own expense to Berlin in 1912 to work with one of the world’s leading biochemists, Dr. Leonor Michaelis at the University of Berlin. During the short length of her research trip, her work would lead to the famous ‘Michaelis-Menten Equation’ in 1913. This equation is a mathematical model that laid the foundation of biochemistry’s modern enzymology discipline and most modern drug developments have been possible proceeding from the understanding of this equation. The ‘Michaelis-Menten Equation’ became the standard in understanding enzymatic kinetics and an important element of biochemistry textbooks. The FEBS Journal of Science featured an article at the 100 year anniversary of ‘Michaelis-Menten Equation’, which argued that the equation was the brainchild of Menten alone.[ii] Interesting to note is that her name appears not as “Dr.” but rather as “Miss” Maud L. Menten on the publication. Even though she was working at Berlin’s Hospital Am Urban to sustain herself, she had no formal position at Michaelis’ lab and was therefore not given the associated title. She also demonstrated impressive linguistic capabilities, managing to learn German in a short time in order to work at the Berlin Hospital, as well as fluently speaking six languages including Halkomelem, the language of various First Nations in Canada.

Maud Lenora Menten, 1879-1960, Canadian Biochemical Society. Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives.

Menten returned to Western Reserve University to continue her research fellowship with Dr. Crile in 1913. She received her PhD in biochemistry from the University of Chicago in 1916, studying the effects of adrenaline on haemoglobin. Still unable to find employment in Canada, Menten was hired as a laboratory demonstrator in pathology in 1918 at the University of Pittsburgh, a position hardly worthy of her qualifications, expertise or reputation. Although still not on par with her skill level, she was promoted to Assistant Professor of Pathology in 1923. In 1926, she was employed as a Clinical Pathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and continued to teach and research, while simultaneously publishing around 100 articles by the end of her career.

Of her many important works, she co-authored a study that linked bacterial infections, like Salmonella with hyperglycemia. In 1944, Menten’s collaborative study, the first on human haemoglobin using electrophoresis (a process of separating proteins) showed differences in human haemoglobin by examining variations in electrophoretic mobility between normal and diseased haemoglobin. However Linus Pauling, an American chemist and a Nobel laureate, has been famously credited for being the first to use this method for his study on Sickle Cell Disease, which is now being contested by experts.

Adding to Menten’s lists of ‘firsts’ in innovation was her collaborative development of the ‘azo-dye coupling reaction’ method that assists in detection of cancer and hepatitis. This method laid the grounds for the field of enzyme histochemistry, and was coined as ‘a stroke of genius’ by author A.G. Pearse in his histochemistry textbook.[iii]

By this time, Menten had a long list of groundbreaking innovations on her resume, but was not promoted to a full professorship until 1950 at the age of 71, which was also the year of her retirement at University of Pittsburgh. She returned to Canada and continued to do what she knew best – research! She reverted to her earlier passion of cancer research at the Medical Institute of British Columbia and eventually resigned in 1954 due to deteriorating health.

Menten, Maud Leonora 1879-1960. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

Despite her many firsts, and excellence in multiple, arguably Nobel Prize worthy, research work, there have been no notable awards given in recognition to Menten. We know that figures like Dr. Banting did not particularly enjoy the fame that came from their work, and likewise for Menten. For them, the results of their work was enough of a prize for an exceptional scientist. At the mention of a Nobel laureate, her usual response would be, “what has he done since?”[iv]

A common theme in the life of Menten was that, even as an acclaimed genius, all her major works are collaborations with men. And although she had a continuous track record of innovations and discoveries, there exists no recorded attempts to retain her genius in Canada. Lacking opportunities at Canadian institutions, Menten earned name and reputation through projects and employment abroad. She resumed research in her country only after returning post retirement, the citizenship of which she never gave up.

There is no record of Dr. Menten being married or having children. She passed away in 1960 at the age of 81 in Leamington, Ontario. Very little is known about Menten’s personal life, but her associates remember her as a compassionate person who was entirely vested in her research work with little regard for return, recognition, or compensation. Like Dr. Banting, she went where she was able to carry out research and produce results. Also like Dr. Banting, she paid little attention to the elaborate gains that could be made from their research. However, unlike Dr. Banting, she was neither a recipient of prizes or awards for her lengthy list of discoveries and innovations, nor became a recognizable name in Canada. A plaque was erected at the University of Toronto in 1979 in recognition of Maud Menten’s work and accomplishments and today she is proudly commemorated as one of the first women at the University of Toronto and in Canada to become a medical doctor.

Bibliography

Cornish-Bowden, Athel, and John Lagnado. “Maud Leonora Menten: A Woman at the Dawn of Biochemistry.” The Biochemist 35, no. 6 (2013): 46–47. https://doi.org/10.1042/bio03506046.

Deichmann, Ute, Stefan Schuster, Jean-Pierre Mazat, and Athel Cornish-Bowden.  “Commemorating the 1913 Michaelis-Menten PaperDie Kinetik Der Invertinwirkung: Three Perspectives.” FEBS Journal 281, no. 2 (2013): 435–63. https://doi.org/10.1111/febs.12598.

Pearse, Anthony Guy Everson. Histochemistry, Theoretical And Applied. 1st ed. Churchill, 1953.

Skaloot, Rebecca. “Some Called Her Miss Menten.” Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.pittmed.health.pitt.edu/oct_2000/miss_menten.pdf.

“Dr. Maud Menten Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Laureate 1998” produced by the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M61QJy7Tc3c.


[i] Athel Cornish-Bowden and John Lagnado, “Maud Leonora Menten: A Woman at the Dawn of Biochemistry,” The Biochemist 35, no. 6 (December 2013): pp. 46-47, https://doi.org/10.1042/bio03506046, 46.

[ii] Ute Deichmann et al., “Commemorating the 1913 Michaelis-Menten PaperDie Kinetik Der Invertinwirkung: Three Perspectives,” FEBS Journal 281, no. 2 (2013): pp. 435-463, https://doi.org/10.1111/febs.12598.

[iii] Pearse, Anthony Guy Everson. Histochemistry, Theoretical Abd Applied. 1st ed. Churchill, 1953.

[iv] Rebecca Skaloot, “Some Called Her Miss Menten,” accessed March 5, 2021, https://www.pittmed.health.pitt.edu/oct_2000/miss_menten.pdf.