By Sara Verschleisser, Science and Technology Editor
Every student who has taken biochemistry knows the Michaelis-Menten equation, but not many bother to learn about the researchers it is named for. I myself only googled Menten because her name is often dropped from the title of the kinetic rate constant (Michaelis constant, Km), and I guessed that probably occurred because of sexism. Dr. Maud Menten, however, was a woman whose accomplishments are so astonishing, they deserve to be shared.
As described by famous narrative science author Rebecca Skloot, Dr. Maud Menten was a woman who knew no limits. Born in 1879, she spent her life defying expectations, unapologetically enforcing her will on the male-dominated world around her. She was one of the first women to graduate from an advanced Canadian medical school, earning not just the degree necessary to practice — which in Canada is a Bachelor of Medicine (M.B.) — but also an M.D., which is effectively a Ph.D. in the study of medicine. Dr. Menten also got an actual Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in the study of biochemistry. She served as a medical school professor at the University of Pittsburgh and became the head of pathology at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She learned to speak seven languages and went on an expedition in the Arctic. Most famously, she helped develop the fundamental equations of enzyme kinetics.
When Dr. Menten completed her second medical degree, she wanted to further explore the world of research, but as a woman had limited opportunities in Canada. She therefore decided to explore research internationally and ended up in Berlin, in the laboratory of Dr. Leonor Michaelis, a German Jewish biochemist. Menten was fascinated by Dr. Michaelis’s early work on enzyme kinetics, and accepted the financial and social difficulties of traveling alone to Berlin just to work with him. Due to rampant anti-semitism in Berlin, Dr. Michaelis would have been prevented from attaining a lasting position at the University of Berlin, so he opened his own laboratory in a municipal hospital. Of the 40 researchers who were attracted to the lab, it was Dr. Menten who was able to work with Dr. Michaelis to find the equations which would explain the rates of enzyme activity.
Since their work, the Michaelis-Menten equation has been used to better understand biological function, and to conduct all kinds of biochemical experimentation. The equation was even found to apply to ion channel conductivity. For any biochemist and most pre-health students, an understanding of their work is essential. The lack of knowledge and recognition of Dr. Menten’s life and achievements are therefore all the more saddening.
Her dedication to research lasted her entire life, until her health forced her to retire at the age of 76. Her students recalled her as persistent and hard-working, often spending 18 hours a day in the lab. She had high expectations of all scientists, whether or not they were her students. When a Nobel Laureate was mentioned in her presence, she’d reply with “What has he done since?” Her students remembered her as a force of nature. She expected everyone to share her drive and love of research.
Despite her astounding accomplishments and expertise, Dr. Maud Menten was underappreciated during her lifetime. Notably, even in the paper written with Dr. Michaelis, Dr. Menten was denied recognition of her degrees, and was referred to only as Miss. Maud L. Menten. Dr. Menten died five years after her retirement, at the age of 81, but it was only 40 years after her death that she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Dr. Menten’s achievements would still be incredibly impressive now, let alone the fact that they occurred in a world which still denied women the right to vote. At the very least, her struggles and achievements should be discussed whenever her equation is taught.