Every first year undergraduate in the biomedical and chemical sciences encounters the Michaelis-Menten equation: an invaluable tool used to work out the kinetics of an enzymatic reaction. A substantial amount of medical research and medicinal chemistry work would be simply impossible without it. It is striking then, that Menten from the aforementioned equation may never have been able to start her career in research because of her gender.
Maud Menten was born in 1879 in Leamington, Ontario Canada. Earning her bachelor degree in 1904 and a masters in physiology in 1907, she became one of the first ever women in Canada to earn a medical doctorate in 1911. Despite earning her three degrees at the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada) Menten was forced to leave Canada to continue her studies, as women were not allowed to do research there.
With doors closed to her at home, she left for Germany in 1912 to work with Leonor Michaelis in Berlin. Michaelis was a Professor Extraordinary at Berlin University (Berlin, Germany) and an experienced chemist and physician. Together they built on the previous work of Victor Henri in enzyme kinetics and proposed that the velocity of a reaction depends on the concentration of the substrate.
The Michaelis-Menten equation:
After working with Michaelis in Germany, she began her PhD at the University of Chicago (Chicago, Il, USA) and graduated in 1916. Following this, her career really took off: she was prolific, publishing over 100 papers on a broad variety of areas. One of her other discoveries was an azo coupling reaction for alkaline phosphatase, a reaction which has found great use in immunohistochemistry. Menten began working at the University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, Pa, USA) in 1923 where she would work for the rest of her career, along with work at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, Pa, USA). Even though she was a hard working researcher, insightful teacher and caring physician, she would have to wait until 1948 to be promoted to full Professor. She had been working in science for 41 years and would manage five more before her arthritis forced her to retire at the age of 74.
She was an impressive individual and overcame huge institutional barriers to produce work which added greatly to science.