When biochemists are asked to name a mathematical relationship, it is almost certain that they will choose the Michaelis–Menten equation. This equation enables biochemists to study quantitatively the way in which an enzyme speeds up a biochemical reaction. It was discovered by the German-born American biochemist Leonor Michaelis (1875–1949) and his assistant Maud Leonora Menten.
Though both discoverers deserve recognition, Menten faced the additional challenge of being a woman scientist at a time when professional advancement for women was very difficult. Born in Port Lambton, Ontario, Canada, Menten graduated from the University of Toronto with a B.A. in 1904 and an M.B. in medicine in 1907. For the 1907 to 1908 year, she was appointed a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York, where she studied the effect of radium on tumors. Returning to Canada, Menten continued her medical studies, and in 1911 she became one of the first women in Canada to receive a medical doctorate.
The pivotal year in Menten's life was 1912, when she crossed the Atlantic Ocean to spend a year working with Michaelis at the University of Berlin. While there, they developed the Michaelis–Menten hypothesis that provided a general explanation of the enzyme catalysis of biochemical reactions. From the hypothesis, they deduced the mathematical relationship that also bears their name. Their discovery changed scientists' approach to the study of biochemical reactions and helped shape the future of the subject.
Returning to North America, Menten performed doctoral research in biochemistry at the University of Chicago, receiving a Ph.D. in 1916. Despite her strong qualifications and the renown she received for the equation coformulated with Michaelis, she was unable to find any suitable employment in Canada. As a result, in 1918 she joined the medical school at the University of Pittsburgh as a pathologist. She was appointed assistant professor of pathology in 1923 and promoted to associate professor in 1925. At the same time, she served as a clinical pathologist at the Children's Hospital at Pittsburgh, where she insisted on knowing about every interesting or puzzling case admitted to the hospital. Besides this, Menten maintained an active research program, authoring or coauthoring over seventy research papers. Among her other important discoveries were the use of electric fields to determine differences in human hemoglobin (a process called electrophoresis ) and the development of a dye reaction to study enzymes in the kidney.
Menten accomplished much by working long 18-hour days. Medical science, however, was not her whole life. She was fluent in several languages, had her oil paintings exhibited in major exhibitions, and was an avid mountain climber. Although Menten did make tremendous contributions to medical science while in Pittsburgh, it was not until a year before her retirement at the age of seventy that the university promoted her to the highest rank of full professor. Formal retirement nonetheless did not slow down Menten. Returning to Canada in 1950, she conducted cancer research at the British Columbia Research Institute until ill health caused her to resign in 1954.
Rayner-Canham, Marelene, and Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey (1998). Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.
Stock, Aaron H., and Carpenter, Anna-Mary (1961). "Prof. Maud Menten (Obituary)." Nature 189 (4769):965.
Skloot, Rebecca. "Some Called Her Miss Menten." Available from http://www.health.pitt.edu/pittmed/oct_2000 .