March 20, 2014
On the campus of my alma mater is a plaque, headed “MAUD LEONORA MENTEN 1879-1960.” I walked past it every day for years, starting with my very first day of university. It took me another year and a half of engineering school before I first understood the significance of it, when I was introduced to the Michaelis-Menten Equation in a chemical engineering course. The equation relates to enzymes, the catalysts of the biological world, proteins which trigger chemical reactions without being altered themselves. The equation relates the speed of a reaction involving an enzyme to the concentration and characteristics of the components involved (and embodies a model for their behavior) and it represented the first time anyone had ever taken a quantitative approach to biochemistry. As one of the fundamental tools of the field, it’s in every undergraduate biochemistry textbook and underpins an enormous amount of medical research. Menten is also remembered for her contributions to chemistry over an incredibly broad range of fields: while she’s most famous for her work on enzyme kinetics, she also invented a stain for alkaline phosphatase (which is still in use today — it’s a marker for bone formation), characterized bacterial toxins like the one produced by salmonella, and was the first person to separate proteins using electrophoresis, now a standard technique. Well, to the extent that Menten is remembered, that is. Menten is quietly celebrated at the University of Toronto, where she was one of the first women in Canada to receive a medical doctorate, and the home of the plaque I described. In a 2000 profile of Menten by Rebecca Skloot, she reported that no one at Rockefeller University knew who Menten was (she was the primary author on the first monograph to come out of it, then the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research), and that the most common response Skloot received when she asked about Menten was, “Who?” A brilliant, dedicated, and versatile scientist, who laid the groundwork for the field of biochemistry and contributed to many others, Maud Menten deserves to be remembered.
READ MORE about members of the Psychonaut Generation (1874–1883).