Gertrude Elion overcomes sexism to win Nobel Prize

“I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of stomach cancer. I decided that nobody should suffer that much.”

For Gertrude Elion, the passing of her grandfather marked the beginning of an interest in medical research. Then in her early 20’s another experience solidified the path.

“I had fallen in love with a young man…and we were planning to get married. And then he died of subacute bacterial endocarditis…Two years later with the advent of penicillin, he would have been saved. It reinforced in my mind the importance of scientific discovery.”

But getting into research wasn’t easy for Gertrude.

“I hadn’t been aware that there were doors closed to me until I started knocking on them. I went to an all-girls school. There were 75 chemistry majors in that class, but most were going to teach it…When I got out and they didn’t want women in the laboratory, it was a shock…It was the Depression and nobody was getting jobs. But I had taken that to mean nobody was getting jobs…[when I heard] ‘You’re qualified. But we’ve never had a woman in the laboratory before, and we think you’d be a distracting influence,’ I almost fell apart.”

She found her way in and dedicated her life to finding cures. She helped develop drugs that were used to treat a number of illnesses, including leukemia, malaria, and organ transplant rejection. And in 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Looking back, she said, “people ask me often [whether] the Nobel Prize [was] the thing you were aiming for all your life, and I say that would be crazy. Nobody would aim for a Nobel Prize because, if you didn’t get it, your whole life would be wasted. What we were aiming at was getting people well, and the satisfaction of that is much greater than any prize you can get.”

Sources: quoted in Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries (1993), Women Pioneers of Medical Research: Biographies of 25 Outstanding Scientists by King-Thom Chung,