After many years, the people of Oakland, the academic, cultural and healthcare centre of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, knew to be on the alert whenever Maud Leonora Menten was out and about, behind the wheel of her Model T Ford automobile.
Oakland is home to three universities, plus museums and hospitals, and Menten, who in 1918 joined the faculty of the medical school at the University of Pittsburgh and in 1926 became a pathologist at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, was a well-known member of the community.
An article by Rebecca Skloot, published in October 2000 in the university’s magazine PitMed, says Menten would “lurch” along the roads in her antique car.
“After her jackrabbit starts, she would settle behind a wheel far taller and wider than she was… She never knew exactly which pedal to push when.”
“Folks said she made up with enthusiasm and quick starts what she lacked in driving skill, and they knew to stay out of her way… Driving her Model T was about the only thing Menten couldn’t do,” Skloot adds.
Menten was born in Port Lambton, Ontario, Canada, on 20 March 1879. She studied medicine at the University of Toronto and earned a master’s degree in 1907.
Interested in doing research but finding opportunities for women limited in Canada, she travelled to the US and went to work in New York at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.
An article published by Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry describes how she stayed in New York for a year, “researching the effects of radium bromide on tumours”.
The article notes radium compounds were still new to science, “having been discovered barely 10 years earlier by Marie and Pierre Curie”. “When she and two others published the results, it was the Rockefeller Institute’s first published monograph.”
Menten left the institute and returned to Toronto to continue her medical studies, and in 1911 became one of the first women in Canada to receive an advanced degree in medical science, according to her entry in the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.
By 1912, the RSC article says, “she was back in research”, working on the “control of acid-base balance during anaesthesia, and at this point she began communicating with Leonor Michaelis, one of the world-leading experts in pH and buffers”.
In 1912 Menten travelled to Germany to work with Michaelis at the University of Berlin, and in 1913 they co-authored a paper in the German journal Biochemische Zietschrift, in which they described the Michaelis-Menten equation, a concept that “quickly changed the study of biochemistry and for which Menten as well as her German co-author earned worldwide recognition”.
Rebecca Skloot’s article says the aim of the paper was “to demystify enzyme kinetics – the study of rates and mechanisms of enzymatic reactions”.
“They developed a tool that would become pivotal in the history of biochemistry: the Michaelis-Menten Equation. The equation, which provides a mathematical means for determining the rate of an enzyme reaction, has been called the foundation of modern enzymology, and it is a standard for most subsequent enzyme-kinetic measurements.”
According to another University of Pittsburgh article, “The equation is taught in every undergraduate biochemistry course and it’s used exhaustively in most research laboratories. Without it, the development of most drugs over the last century would have been impossible.”
Menten continued with her research, the Royal Society of Chemistry, says, publishing more than 100 papers and developing “a staining method using azo dyes that is still used in histochemistry today. A leading textbook described it as “a touch of genius”.
When she wasn’t working, Menten played the clarinet, painted, climbed mountains, went on an Arctic expedition and mastered several languages, including Russian, French, German, Italian, and at least one Native-American language.
She received a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Chicago in 1916, then became an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1923 and associate professor in 1925. She was not made a full professor until 1949, a year before her retirement.
She died in Lemington, Ontario, Canada, on 20, July 1960.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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