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Meet a Nobel Laureate
Gertrude Elion Interview (page: 2 / 7)
Nobel Prize in Medicine
When you got to school, was there a teacher who inspired you?
Gertrude Elion: I liked many of my teachers, but not particularly the science teachers. I went to an all girls school and I had a feeling that the people who taught science didn't think we were really taking this very seriously. They thought we were just taking science because it was another course. Maybe that's the reason I didn't relate to them. I related more to my French teacher, for example, who was very good, and who taught French beautifully. I became very friendly with her, but on the whole I found teachers to be very stand-offish. Of course, I went to a very large school, not a small college where students and faculty mix much more. That probably accounts for it.
It sounds like you were aware at a very early age that you were striking out in an unusual direction for a woman.
Gertrude Elion: It didn't occur to me that it was an unusual direction at the time. I realized very soon after I got out of college, when nobody wanted to hire me, that it was an unusual direction. At the time it was just "learn what you have to learn, and as much as you can, and don't think about whether it's the right direction or wrong direction for a woman."
How did you experience that sort of discrimination?
Gertrude Elion: It really wasn't until I got out of college and started looking for a job. And it really hit me because I had done well in school, graduated summa cum laude, and I thought, well, you know, there is no reason somebody won't give me a try. But wherever I went -- it was a depression time, it was a time that there weren't many jobs to begin with, and what there were, they couldn't see any reason to take a woman. They would interview me for long periods of time, but then they would say, "Well, we think you'd be a distracting influence in the laboratory." Well, I guess I was kind of cute at the age of 19, but I can't imagine that I would have been a distracting influence. I would have been so busy working that -- you know. But anyway, it was very discouraging.
[ Key to Success ] Perseverance
Did you ever sense that there was a brick wall there that you weren't going to pass through?
Gertrude Elion: I did. I think I sensed it about three or four months after graduation.
I said, "Well, I'm going to have to earn a living. I guess I'd better go to secretarial school." And so I started secretarial school. And I worked. I went for six weeks. And just at that point someone offered me a job as a lab assistant in a school of nursing for three months. It was a trimester. So I dropped secretarial school and took this three month job, and then I was out of a job again. But once I tried secretarial school, I knew that I couldn't -- I wouldn't -- ever stay there. It was only six weeks, which was about as much as I could take.
[ Key to Success ] Perseverance
What did they pay you for this lab work?
Gertrude Elion: They paid me $200 for the three months. I remember the amount because when I went to the bank to cash my check, which was for $66.66 each month, they all thought it was very funny.
That must have been hard to live on.
Gertrude Elion: Yes. I was living at home. That was essentially just carfares and lunches.
Didn't you also do a stint teaching?
Gertrude Elion: Oh, yes. After this three-month job, I was again out of a job, and I ran into someone at a party -- a chemist who had a lab. He worked by himself in a factory building. I asked if I could come and work for him, and he said yes, but he couldn't pay me. I said, "That's all right, I still need the experience." So I went to work for him. He was a very good organic chemist. I worked for him for a year and a half. At the end of that time, he was paying me $20 a week. From that, I saved enough to go to graduate school at NYU. I went there for a year and finished my master's degree. There were still no jobs, so I taught high school chemistry and physics for two years.
Then the war came, and all of a sudden there were jobs and nobody to fill them. So I left teaching at the end of two years, and began to work again in a laboratory, only this time not in research but doing food analysis for the A&P grocery chain. You know, measuring interesting things like the acidity of pickles and the color of mayonnaise. But it was a good experience because I learned a lot of instrumentation, so I stayed there for a year and a half.
Then it was time, I thought, to find me a research job. And I one. I'm not really sure how I got it, but I applied for a job at a new Johnson & Johnson laboratory in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They had decided they were going into the pharmaceutical industry. The man who was hired to head this was a chemist from American Cyanamide, I think. He was allowed to hire two assistants, and I was one of these assistants. Six months later they changed vice presidents, and they said, "No, we decided not to go into the pharmaceutical industry." So I said, "Does that mean I'm fired?" And they said, "No, we won't fire you, but we'll give you a different job. We'll let you measure the tensile strength of sutures. You hang weights on the ends of these strings, and you see at what weight they break." And I said, "No, I don't think I want to do that." So I left, and that was when I went to Burroughs Welcome, in 1944.
It sounds like that was really the first big break. Who gave it to you, and why?
Gertrude Elion: Dr. George Hitchings, with whom I continued to work all the years thereafter. He was the biochemistry department at Burroughs Wellcome. It was a very small laboratory. He had one assistant, they told him he could hire a second one, and I just turned up out of the blue. My father was a dentist, and he had samples of some pain medication that Burroughs Wellcome made, and he said, "You know, Tuckahoe, New York is not very far from where we live. Why don't you see if they have a job." I called them up and they said they had some openings. So on a Saturday morning I went up there, was interviewed by Dr. Hitchings, and a week later he offered me the job. I had a little experience by then. I had my master's degree in organic chemistry. His other assistant was a woman, by the way. He was one of these unusual people that didn't care whether it was a man or a woman, and gave us equal opportunity. I was very fortunate that he happened to be there that Saturday morning, because they worked on alternate Saturdays. It would have been someone else on the next Saturday.
You might not be sitting here today.
Gertrude Elion: That's right. I'm quite sure.
Did you sense that you were accepted as a woman right away at Burroughs Wellcome? Or were there people who kind of resented you?
Gertrude Elion: I didn't find anyone who resented me, but I don't know that I would have noticed. There was so much to learn, and I was so focused on learning. It was a new field for me, actually. What he was doing was new for its time, as well as for me, so there was a great deal to learn, a lot of reading to do. I had a lot of encouragement from him, so I'd never stop to think whether anybody resented me or not.
You didn't have a Ph.D., and yet you got hired for this pretty prestigious job.
Gertrude Elion: It wasn't very prestigious at the time. I was making the magnificent sum of $50 a week, and I was expected to do what I was told. I was told to make certain compounds, look it up in the library, see how it was done, and so on. I also started work on my Ph.D. at that time.
I started going at night out to Brooklyn, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. For two years, I went three nights a week from Westchester County, all the way out to Brooklyn, back to the Bronx where I lived. And I was happily thinking, "Well, in about ten years, I'll have my doctorate." Then the dean said, "No, you can't do that, because we want you to come full time. If you are serious about it, you will give up your job." And I said, "No way. I'm not going to give up that job. It's the one I've really been looking for." I discussed it with Dr. Hitchings, and he said, "You don't need to get a doctorate. You can do it all without." I'm not sure I believed him at the time, but I decided to take the chance. So I never went back.
It was a very daring thing for him to say at that time.
Gertrude Elion: It was very daring. I never questioned him about it. I think he thought there was a certain gleam and a certain intensity in my work. It would take me a little longer perhaps, without a Ph.D., but he was prepared to give me the opportunity. That's what made the difference. Not everyone would have done that.
If you had it all to do over again, would you still follow the same path?
Gertrude Elion: I think under those circumstances, I would follow the same path. It isn't the path that I would tell other people to follow. I think it's much easier if you get your Ph.D. first. It just was the wrong time for me to drop my job, and it had been too difficult to find the right kind of job. In a few years, I realized that I had made the right decision, because we began to find compounds active in leukemia, and the excitement of the work was such that it couldn't possibly have happened, I think, in another laboratory. Maybe in a much larger laboratory. So I was in the right place at the right time.
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This page last revised on Nov 08, 2007 11:40 EST
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