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If you like Gertrude Elion's story, you might also like:
James Watson and
Gertrude Elion's recommended reading:
The Microbe Hunters
Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Gertrude Elion in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Meet a Nobel Laureate
Gertrude Elion Interview
Nobel Prize in Medicine
March 6, 1991
San Francisco, California
Reading about your career, I was struck by a sense that you had a clear vision of what you wanted to do at a fairly young age. When did you first know?
Gertrude Elion: I didn't really know until I was 15 years old.
I liked everything in school. I enjoyed learning things, but I had no specific bent towards science until my grandfather, who died -- that summer -- of stomach cancer. And I had been trying to decide what I was going to study in college -- I was just about to enter college -- and decided that I really have finally an aim in life. I was going to do something about cancer. Well, that meant I had to take a science, and so it was either chemistry or biology, and I decided on chemistry. So it was really very clear in my mind from then on what I wanted to do. How I was going to get there I wasn't so sure of.
[ Key to Success ] Vision
Were you very close to that grandfather?
Gertrude Elion: I was very close to (my grandfather) because he came over from Europe when I was about three years old, and lived very close to us, and used to take me to the park and tell me stories. And when my brother was born, about two years later, he spent more time with me while my mother was busy with the baby, and so we got to be very close. And also, I watched him die, essentially, in the hospital. And that made a terrific impression on me. I decided that nobody should suffer that much.
[ Key to Success ] Passion
A lot of people feel that way watching their relatives die, but you were motivated to act on the feeling.
Gertrude Elion: It was a critical time in my life, when this happened, because I was just leaving high school. I had to make some sort of decision about my future. It was so dramatic that it made an impression at that critical moment. If it had happened earlier, perhaps it wouldn't have.
When you realized that this would involve studying chemistry, biology, that sort of thing, did you have an immediate aptitude for it? Did you enjoy it?
Gertrude Elion: I enjoyed chemistry tremendously. In fact, I debated between chemistry and biology and I decided that I really didn't like to dissect things, so I took chemistry. But once I started it, I found it absolutely fascinating.
Were there people, or persons, who inspired you?
Gertrude Elion: I can't remember that anyone in particular did. I think perhaps it was my mother who influenced me the most. She was a housewife. She had no higher education, but had the most common sense of anyone I knew, and she wanted me to have a career. So she was always very supportive, at a time when many women of her generation would not have been.
How do you account for her forward-looking attitude?
Gertrude Elion: I think she herself probably felt deprived that she had never been able to do anything more. She married very young, 19. She had a child when she was a little over 20, and from then on her career was in the house, as most women's careers were.
I often have an image a scientist coming from a long line of scientists. That doesn't seem to be true in your case. Were there any scientists in your family?
Gertrude Elion: Not that I know of. My father was a dentist. I have a brother who is also a scientist, a physicist and engineer. My father wanted both of us to be dentists, but we couldn't see it. My brother's children have a scientific bent. One is a cardiologist, one's an engineer. Maybe we passed on some of it to other children in the family, but we certainly didn't come from a scientific family.
It sounds like your mother, though she was not a scientist, had a great influence on you. How is that?
Gertrude Elion: Partly because she believed that I could have a career. When I was discouraged, she always said, "Don't let that upset you. You know, you can do it. She also was a self-taught person. She read prodigiously. She didn't have anything beyond a high school education, but all through my years in high school and college, when I brought home books in literature, she would read every one of the books that I read. She didn't read the scientific literature, but she understood what I would tell her in terms of what I was doing.
I would always bring home work on weekends. And in the country -- we had a cabin not far from New York, and I would come, and I would sit under the apple tree and write papers. And my mother would always say, "Does your boss know what you do on the weekends?" And I would say, "I'm not doing it for him, I'm doing it for me." And one weekend, I came without any work, and she said, "You are not feeling well. And I said, "I'm feeling perfectly -- " "Oh, no! You are not telling me the truth. If you were feeling well, you would have brought some work with you."
[ Key to Success ] Integrity
So she had gotten used to the fact that I was supposed to work, that if I didn't, it was obvious that I was sick.
You were lucky to have such a mother.
Gertrude Elion: Indeed I was.
Were you inspired by any scientists you read about?
Gertrude Elion: I read about Madam Curie of course. That said to me that a woman can do it, too. There was also a book called Microbe Hunters by Paul DeKruif, which dealt with a lot of very exciting discoveries by people in chemistry, physics, biology. It's a book that's overlooked these days which I think all children should have to read. It dealt with people like Jenner, and the smallpox vaccine. These were biographical sketches, not just about their discoveries, but about their lives. Paul Ehrlich, Louis Pasteur, and what wonderful things they were able to accomplish from very poor surroundings. Each one had an entirely exciting life, a lot of struggle but a lot of satisfaction, a lot of achievement.
That book gave me the feeling that it was all right to struggle, it was all right for it to be hard. It didn't have to come easily, and yet there were so many things to be done in science. I think I read it in high school, but I would like to give that book to every child in the elementary schools, not just in high school.
How about Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis?
Gertrude Elion: Oh yes. It was a book where real people had real struggles. They accomplished amazing things, even though they didn't know what they were going to accomplish when they started out. I think that people need a goal, but I don't think they have to feel that goal is immovable. They might find a better goal along the way.
Isn't there a passage in that book where somebody dies, and a person is thus inspired to search for a cure?
Gertrude Elion: No, actually the person is searching for a cure, but then his wife dies of the same disease. He was already on the track, but it just pushed him a little harder.
You must have related to that.
Gertrude Elion: Oh, yes.
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This page last revised on Nov 08, 2007 11:40 EDT
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