Kilby summer student intrigued by story of historic scientist

Maud Menten grew up in Harrison Mills, graduated from Chilliwack Secondary, and went on to make significant contributions to medical science

Nina Payne’s interest in former Harrison Mill’s resident Maud Menton has sparked a new exhibit at the Kilby Historical Site. Erin Knutson/ Black Press

Nina Payne’s interest in former Harrison Mill’s resident Maud Menton has sparked a new exhibit at the Kilby Historical Site. Erin Knutson/ Black Press

As a third-year biology student at UBC’s Faculty of Science, Nina Payne has had the names of countless scientists burned into her psyche. Some she knows a lot about — female scientists Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, to be sure. Others are just footnotes in a long list of names used as labels for theories and equations.

The name ‘Maud Menten’ started out as the latter for Payne, as just one half of the Michaelis-Menten equation. The theory surrounding the equation is a key building block in understanding enzyme kinetics.

Scientifically speaking, the Michaelis-Menten equation states that the rate of an enzymatic reaction will increase as substrate concentrate increases. It’s vitally important in biochemistry studies and understanding how the body metabolizes.

But for Payne, it’s the woman behind the century-old work that is most intriguing.

Maud Menten, it turns out, lived most of her younger years in Harrison Mills. She was a graduate of Chilliwack Secondary in 1897, and after a brief teaching stint at Camp River elementary school she set off to travel the world in the pursuit of science. Her quest for knowledge led her across the continent and the Atlantic Ocean, as she and her contemporaries unlocked revolutionary mysteries under the microscope.

Her life was filled with adventure, discovery, science and trailblazing. But it’s a life that is woefully under-documented, says Payne. She’s been on a mission to change that since last summer, when she discovered the very local connection to that scientific equation.

When she was researching Kilby Historic Site in hopes of landing a job close to her family home in Chilliwack, Payne learned the land was once owned by a family named Menten.

“I thought ‘geez, where have I heard that name before?’,” she says. When she remembered the equation from a past class, she did a little digging and realized Kilby was exactly where the pioneering scientist had her start at at education. She mentioned it in the interview, clinching her spot at Kilby.

It just happened that a relative of Menten’s had sent along a box of her belongings to the historic site. The box was just sitting there, filled with personal items such as academic journals and eyeglasses, waiting for someone with the time, energy and interest.

Payne was hired, and she delved into researching Menten’s life. Her work has now culminated into a special exhibit at Kilby, called Honouring the Life of Maud Menten. As a young female scientist who has plans to become a physician, Payne is hoping more local students will come out and be inspired by Menten’s formidable life and work.

“In 1912, she traveled to Germany to do research there,” Payne says. “She was a pretty tough lady. Personally as a science student, she would have scared the living lights out of me.”

In truth, Payne has nothing but respect for Menten. She realizes it was women like Menten who jumped hurdles for their right to an education that make becoming a doctor a possibility.

“I’ve learned that man do I have it easy,” she says. “Especially in science, it’s because of women like her, and even my own female professors, who have really paved the way for my ability to study and my freedom to study. As much as her name has been lost in the humdrum of her male compatriots, she paved the way for my own studies.

“Nobody questions my attendance in a course.”

There is a lot that history does know about Menten. Dr. Maud Lenora Menten (1879-1960) was one of the first few female physicians in Canada, and was the first woman to receive a Medical Doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1911.

She held three PhD’s in Medicine, Physiology and Biochemistry respectively, and dedicated her long career to life saving medical research in fields largely dominated by men.  She taught at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, wrote or co-wrote about 100 research papers, and was a primary author of a study on radiobromide and cancer while at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Menten studied hormones, scarlet fever, all while learning multiple languages.

Dr. Maud Menten was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1998.

Captain Bob Menten, her brother, built a small sternwheeler called the Minto to carry passengers between Chilliwack and Harrison Mills. This brought people to their family store and helped grow the town.

A school and church were built in 1901 to meet the needs of the expanding town. Before this, children had to cross the river by boat to go to school.

“That’s dedication to your education,” Payne says. “This was a river that had an active lumber mill on it.”

Menten was clearly well educated in Chilliwack, and driven to succeed.

But there is much more to be learned about this fascinating historic personality, and Payne is committed to unearthing as much information as possible. She’s made calls to the institutions where she worked, in search of items like paintings as Menten also found time for art between her studies.

She wants other young scientists to know about this piece of local history, and to be able to put Menten’s life into context.

“I had heard the name Menten, but nothing else. Nothing about being from B.C.,” she says.  And certainly nothing about her traversing her way across the Fraser River, to study here in Chilliwack.

While Payne herself is a keen student of biology, discovering this one little name in a textbook has such a local connection has opened her eyes even more to the history surrounding science.

“What was really challenging was the fact checking,” she says. “She worked in a lot of old hospitals, she was all over the place, and a lot of these records just don’t exist anymore.”

“I’ve always loved history,” she says. “Before I was always interested in female scientists like Curie and Franklin, but I had never realized the personal impact.”

For more information about visiting Kilby Historic Site, visit www.kilby.ca.