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How One Scientist Broke Through the ‘Brick Wall’ for Women in Chemistry

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As a youth, Gertrude B. Elion had a voracious appetite for learning and enjoyed all school subjects equally. But after her grandfather succumbed to cancer, Elion – born a century ago on Jan. 23, 1918 – began to dream of finding a cure and decided to make science her vocation. This was a choice few women made in her day but it would ultimately benefit countless lives.

Elion majored in Chemistry at New York City’s Hunter College, but upon obtaining her bachelor’s degree in 1937, she ran into what she described as a “brick wall.” No one was taking her seriously: “They wondered why in the world I wanted to be a chemist when no women were doing that,” she said in a 1997 interview that later appeared in her biography for the Royal Society.

Having been rejected by a slew of graduate programs, she considered herself fortunate to take an unpaid position as a laboratory assistant to a chemist. In 1939, she managed to enter a grad program at New York University, where she was the only female in her chemistry class. Along with her studies, she also worked as a substitute science teacher in NYC public schools.

When she obtained her master’s degree in 1941, it was good timing, as much of the U.S. male population was sent abroad to fight in World War II. The dearth of men forced many employers to take women seriously, including as scientists. She found work as an analytical chemist for a food company, but soon encountered opposition because of her own boredom: Elion’s mind was too restlessly inquisitive to stay content testing the acidity of pickles.

Switching to research work, in 1944 she found a position in the Burroughs Wellcome (now called GlaxoSmithKline) laboratory outside New York City. There, she joined a staff led by biochemist George Hitchings and gratified her appetite for learning through her involvement in microbiology and the “biological activities of the compounds” she synthesized, as she would later put it. Encouraged by Hitchings, her longtime collaborator, she expanded her expertise into such fields as biochemistry, immunology, pharmacology and virology.

Still not entirely satisfied, she went to school at night at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in her pursuit of a doctorate degree. But after multiple years of part-time attendance, she was informed that she would have to give up her job and attend school fulltime in order to receive her doctorate. As much as she wanted a Ph.D., she chose to remain at her job.

She would not regret the choice, as at Burroughs Wellcome she and Hitchings employed a groundbreaking method: Instead of depending exclusively on the conventional trial-and-error process, they studied the difference between healthy cells and pathogenic cells – then engineered drugs that sought to target the particular pathogen.

Using this targeted method, Elion helped develop such drugs as mercaptopurine, which changed childhood leukemia from a death-sentence to a condition that most survive. She also designed thioguanine, which helps adults with leukemia, and co-developed azathioprine, which assists in kidney transplants by preventing organ rejection, and has mitigated such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis.

Additionally, Elion – who in 1967 was appointed Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy – played a leading role in designing such drugs as: pyrimethamine, which was formerly used to combat malaria; trimethoprim, which treats urinary tract infections; allopurinol, which alleviates gout and kidney stones; and acyclovir, which treats herpes and shingles.

Despite all the talented dedication it required, she loved her work so much that she admitted never feeling “a great need to go outside for relaxation.” Her employer was so pleased with her work that it established a scholarship fund in her honor to facilitate women’s scientific careers. Though she officially retired from Burroughs Wellcome in 1983, she remained at the laboratory on a quasi-fulltime basis as a Scientist Emeritus and consultant, overseeing the development of azidothymidine (AZT), the first viable drug in the fight against AIDS.

Along with Hitchings and another coworker, James Black, Elion received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988. Three years later, she was awarded the National Medal of Science and became the first female inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1995, she was chosen as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (UK), and held a professorship as well as multiple honorary doctorates — all without ever receiving a formal Ph.D.

When Elion died in 1999 at age 81, she hadn’t found a cure for her grandfather’s cancer. But through saving and improving the lives of many others, she trumped anyone who long ago dismissed her choice of career.

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