Thursday, September 11, 2014

The mystery of Maud Menten

Maud Menten is best known for the Michaelis-Menten equation and her work on enzyme kinetics. She was born in Port Lambton, Ontario and she is a graduate of the University of Toronto.

The "mystery" concerns her degrees and the year she graduated. The video below was prepared when she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1998 [Maud Menten]. If you watch the first few minutes you'll hear that in 1911 Maud Menten was one of the first Canadian women to receive a medical degree. You find similar statements all over the web, although sometimes it says she graduated in 1913—as in the text on the Canadian Hall of Fame website.


There's a slight problem. We have pictures of every graduating class in the corridors of the main floor of my building. Her picture is not in the graduating class of 1911. Not only that, there are a handful of women in the earlier Faculty of Medicine graduating classes dating back to 1907 and before that there was a special Women's College Medical School that had been graduating women for twenty years. She couldn't have been one of the first women to receive a medical degree.1

There's also a problem with dates. She was born in 1879 so in 1911, she was 32 years old and that's pretty old to be graduating from medical school even back then. There's something wrong on the web.

I've known about this mystery for about five years but today I decided to try and get to the bottom of it. I consulted the people in the alumini office and before long there were three or four people trying to sort it out with whatever records they had. They had a photograph of Maud Menten on the wall so they were motivated to get to the truth about her degrees.

As it turns out, Wikipedia gets it right but the real truth isn't obvious [see Maud Menten]. Here's the Wikipedia entry ...
Maud Menten was born in Port Lambton, Ontario and studied medicine at the University of Toronto (B.A. 1904, M.B. 1907, M.D. 1911). She was among the first women in Canada to earn a medical doctorate. She completed her thesis work at University of Chicago.
Later on in the article we find conflicting statements.
After completing secondary school, Menten attended the University of Toronto where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1904 and a master's degree in physiology in 1907. While earning her graduate degree, she worked as a demonstrator in the university's physiology lab.

A talented student, Menten was appointed a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City in 1907. There, she studied the effect of radium bromide on cancerous tumors in rats. Menten and two other scientists published the results of their experiment, producing the institute's first monograph. After a year at the Institute, Menten worked as an intern at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She returned to Canada and began studies at the University of Toronto a year later. In 1911 she became one of the first Canadian women to receive a doctor of medicine degree.
So, what degrees did she earn and when?

With a bit of sleuthing, and a bit of history, we found the answer. She's in the 1907 graduating class (below). She's in the second row with the four other women who graduated that year (She's 12th from the left, click to embiggen.) The degree she earned was M.B. (Bachelor of Medicine) and that qualified her to practice medicine. It was the standard medical degree at the time. She was not among the first women to receive this degree.

In 1911 she was awarded a Doctor of Medicine degree (M.D.). In today's terminology that would be equivalent to a Ph.D. in medicine. She was among the first women in Canada to get this advanced degree. It was only a few later that the name of the degree changed so that the undergraduate degree became the M.D. degree. That's where the confusion originates.

The video shows you the picture from her 1907 graduating class, not 1911.

Now I need to find out where she got her Ph.D.



1. The video also states that publication of the Michaelis-Menten equation in 1913 marked the beginning of the field of biochemistry. This might come as a bit of a surprise to Maud Menten since the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto (my department) was founded in 1907/08 and she probably took biochemistry courses while she was studying for her doctorate.

32 comments :

  1. The ProQuest dissertation database suggests the University of Chicago in 1916 -- a Maud Leonora Menton submitted a dissertation entitled "THE ALKALINITY OF THE BLOOD IN MALIGNANCY AND OTHER PATHOLOGICAL CONDITIONS; TOGETHER WITH OBSERVATIONS ON THE RELATION OF THE ALKALINITY OF THE BLOOD TO BAROMETRIC PRESSURE"

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    1. Although the actual text of the dissertation found here:
      http://books.google.com/books?id=4xU1AQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

      says 1917. But to answer your question of where she got her PhD, Chicago.

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    2. Interestingly, the standard derivation of the Michaelis-Menten equation is not from Michaelis and Menten, but from the followup paper by Briggs and Haldane [yes, that Haldane] in 1925. Which does not detract from Maud Menten's achievement.

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  2. This is very interesting, and I’m glad to know you’ve been doing some investigating. The plaque outside your department says (amongst other things): “She graduated in medicine from the University of Toronto in 1907, and 4 years later became one of the first Canadian women to receive a medical doctorate”, so it is at least in part correct and in part adding to the confusion. I wish I’d known about the graduation photo while studying her background last year while preparing a paper [FEBS Journal 281 (2014) 435–463] commemorating her famous paper with Leonor Michaelis. Some time in the 1990s Keith Laidler told me that he had examined her thesis (I don’t remember which one) at the University of Toronto and saw that her name was shown just as “Maud Menten” -- no Leonora -- and speculated that she might have added the Leonora in honour of Michaelis. However, her great-nephew John Barberie, with whom I corresponded last year, told me that there were earlier Leonoras in her family, and, moreover, her first paper [Macallum AB & Menten ML (1906) On the distribution of chlorides in nerve cells and fibres. Proc Roy Soc Ser B 77, 165–193] had the L well before she met Michaelis.

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  3. (This is really a follow-up to Joe's comment, but your Javascript doesn't seem to do what it is supposed to do, and when I press Reply it does nothing.)

    Interestingly also, the equation usually ascribed to Michaelis and Menten was actually derived and published a decade earlier by Victor Henri in his thesis [in a somewhat opaque form, as Vitesse initiale = K3.a/(1 + ma)]. Although I must have read this 40 years ago when I first saw his thesis it took me until much more recently to accept that it was the Michaelis-Menten equation, in part because Henri didn't use it for anything, and was more interested in the time course. Michaelis and Menten were certainly the first to understand the advantages of using initial rates.

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    1. My students are about to construct progress curves (for trypsin) in the lab course I'm teaching. I performed a simple demonstration of me as an enzyme by taking apart Lego blocks. When I plotted my actions over time it yielded a straight line that plateaued when all of the blocks were apart.

      Then I reminded them what a real enzyme progress curve looks like and asked them why it was different. They studied enzyme kinetics last year but none of them (43 students) were able to explain the shape of the progress curve!

      I had to teach them why initial velocity is so important and why it was such a valuable insight.

      BTW, only a few students were aware of any connection between Maud Menten and the University of Toronto. That's in spite of the fact that her bust is in the lobby of my building and there's a big blue plaque outside the main entrance.

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    2. BTW, only a few students were aware of any connection between Maud Menten and the University of Toronto. That's in spite of the fact that her bust is in the lobby of my building and there's a big blue plaque outside the main entrance.

      I'm not sure most modern students care about that sort of thing (probably we were the same but have forgotten). In 1977 I spent three months teaching a gradiuate course on this stuff at Guelph. When I first referred to Michaelis and Menten I said that Maud Menten was one of the first women and one of the first Canadians to become an everyday name in biochemistry. None of the students seemed the least bit interested to know this. Both of the profesors auditing the course told me afterwards that they hadn't known either of these things, that they both found them interesting to know, and that they agreed with my estimate of the level of student interest: "Why is he wasting time telling us stuff that's not likely to feature in the exam?" All or nearly all of the students were Canadian, and more than half were women.

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    3. I like to work some history in when I lecture, and usually get comments saying that the students appreciated that, but that I did spend too much time on it. If you don't do that, students will get the impression that there was no work of interest before 1995, which is about when the electronic copies of journals start.

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    4. 1995 is about when most of my students were born. As far as they are concerned, that's when the world began. Most of my students don't believe me when I tell them that I've had an email address since 1982 and that Watson and Crick worked out the structure of DNA before their parents were born.

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    5. ,,, which is often confused with the discovery of DNA (Ferdinand Miescher, 1869; Kossel, 1878).

      I am having more and more fun watching students' faces when I talk about historical figures in my field who I met (got to see JBS Haldane lecture and talk with other, many contacts with Sewall Wright, Motoo Kimura got mad at me). They are astonished that a living person could have seen or known these people. Perhaps they think that was back in the Middle Ages.

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    6. I don't think Motoo Kimura ever got mad at me: if he did he kept it to himself, and once sent me a very friendly letter. On the other hand Max Perutz got sufficiently mad at me at a meeting of the Biochemical Society to ask for additional time so that he could answer the scurrilous points he thought I had made.

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    7. Joe Felsenstein said:
      If you don't do that, students will get the impression that there was no work of interest before 1995
      I find that this boundary is often at 2000, when the human genome was published. I have seen this period described as one of "rampant paradigm shifts" and some students even believe that concepts such as polygenic inheritance and the existence of junk DNA* were only appreciated after this feat. Honestly, I can't think of a single paradigm that was overturned because of whole genome sequencing.

      *written as "junk" DNA, because it is not really junk of course

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    8. I read a lot of articles and books by science writers. According to them, paradigms are overturned just about every week. Sometimes it's the same paradigm that gets overturned every year or so. The Central Dogma, for example, has been overturned 44 times since 1980.

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    9. Do real scientists talk much at all about paradigms? I think one could go through a year without hearing the word uttered by someone who wasn't a journalist, popular science writer or a philosopher.

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    10. Good point. It's pretty unusual to hear scientists talk about the current paradigms that they support. I guess it's only when you want to overthrow one of them that you put it into your papers.

      Personally, whenever I read a paper that claims to be overthrowing a paradigm it turns out to be a pretty good indication of bad science.

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    11. Interesting about use (and non-use) of language re "paradigm." Makes me wonder whether the Central Dogma would have been "overturned" so often if it had been called something else. After all, people don't like dogmatism, so seeing a dogma overturned has to be positive, doesn't it?

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    12. You can also call any common opinion you have just shown to be false a "paradigm", as in this example:

      We overturn the paradigm of cytosolic K+ pool-size homeostasis...

      Why, there are scientists who have sometimes overturned six paradigms before breakfast!

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    13. Everybody is in agreement that the paradigm paradigm ought to be overturned.

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    14. There was a big wave of paradigmitis in evolutionary biology in about 1980. A lot of ambitious self-promoting graduate students, postdocs, and young researchers had heard of Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. They concluded that really innovative people invented new paradigms, while only dullards did "normal science". So everyone started describing their results as founding a new paradigm. A lot of us had to spend a lot of our time killing off these new paradigms, mostly by showing that they were either wrong, or equivalent to older views.

      I used to joke that I would become famous by being the only person of my generation to do "normal science".

      John Maynard Smith used to happily declare that he was an orthodox adherent of the Modern Synthesis. That was profoundly liberating for many of us, as there were so many self-promoters around loudly calling the Modern Synthesis outdated. It is one of the ways he showed real leadership.

      Much of this wave of paradigmitis subsided by about 1990.

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    15. A lot of ambitious self-promoting graduate students, postdocs, and young researchers had heard of Kuhn's book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions".

      Almost a year is a very long time to wait to answer your comment, but a year ago I hadn't read Kuhn's book (though it was sitting unread on my shelves for about ten years), but now I have. I found it a struggle to get through, and find it astonishing that a book with so little to say achieved such fame. He tells us what the conclusions are going to be right at the beginning and then repeats them endlessly, and mentions biology only as an afterthought, near the end.A reviewer at Amazon said that he used the word "paradigm(s)" 677 times during the course of the book, and although my first thought was that that was an exaggeration it's possibly true. What emerges from the book is someone deeply in love with his own ideas.

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  4. Another follow-up to Joe, this time to his "yes, that Haldane": true, as long as that refers the Haldane most of us have heard of, JBS Haldane, but his father JS Haldane was a very distinguished physiologist, very famous in his time. His sister Naomi (Mitchison) was also very famous, but although Wikipedia tells me that in 1908 she did experiments on Mendelian genetics with her brother I'm not aware that she ever published anything in science.

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    1. Yes. The Haldane family was much like the Darwin-Wedgwood family in the sense that one extremely distinguished individual overshadowed the fame of other distinguished members who probably would have been better known if they had been in other families.

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    2. Well yes, but outside the rarefied world in which those of us who follow this blog live, Naomi Mitchison is probably a lot more famous than JBS Haldane. Both of them are of course very well known to political activists in the UK (if they're old enough).

      (Curiously, the Reply button seems to work on my rather old desk-top computer, but not on my much newer portable that I use at home.)

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    3. I suppose you're right. I remember being surprised in reading a collection of George Orwell's essays and reading his arguments against J.B.S Haldane and J.D. Bernal, both of whom I had only heard of in a scientific context. It turns out that while Orwell, Haldane, and Bernal were all socialists, Orwell was a supporter of Trotsky and Haldane and Bernal were Stalinists (at the time).

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    4. I bought Mitchison's wartime diary 'Among You Taking Notes' on a whim while an undergraduate, unaware initially that the 'Jack' frequently referred to was JBS.

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  5. Oh dear, I need to read to the end of the sentence before leaping in. Naomi Haldane did publish a genetics paper: Haldane, J. B. S.; Sprunt, A. D.; Haldane, N. M. (1915). "Reduplication in mice (Preliminary Communication)". Journal of Genetics 5 (2): 133–135.

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    1. She also had three sons who became biologists (one a bacteriologist, one an immunologist, and one a cell biologist), and one grandson, Graeme Mitchison, who has done much work in bioinformatics and is now working on information in quantum computation.

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    2. And I should mention that the most famous Haldane in the past was Richard Haldane (Viscount Haldane), JBS's uncle, who was Secretary of State for War, and later Lord Chancellor. He helped found both the London School of Economics and Imperial College.

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    3. Not that is anything to do with Dr Menten, but Watson's book "The Double Helix" is dedicated to Naomi Mitchison, and the annotated edition contains a photograph of Mitchison and Lucky Jim.

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    4. Apparently The Haldane-Sprunt-Mitchison paper was the first demonstration of linkage and recombination in a mammal. So pretty important.

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    5. Naomi's sons included two or three zoologists, and a grandson is a present-day computational biologist, and a good one. JBS Haldane is now the most famous Haldane, at least to reader here. But in his day he was overshadowed by his father, who is the guy who figured out "the bends", an immensely important piece of work. And even more so by his uncle, Richard Haldane, a major politician or Edwardian times, and a cabinet minister in Liberal governments. Supposedly the notorious British 11+ exams came from an educational reform that Richard made. When JBS entered the army in WWI, his uncle had recently been Minister of War.

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