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Meet a Nobel Laureate
Gertrude Elion Interview (page: 7 / 7)
Nobel Prize in Medicine
Describe your alleged retirement schedule.
Gertrude Elion: I am a consultant at Burroughs Wellcome. I have an office which I go to every day that I am home. I do work for the World Health Organization as a chairman of a committee on the Chemotherapy of Malaria. I am on the National Cancer Advisory Board, which meets in Washington four times a year and reviews policies of the National Cancer Institute. I am on a panel for the Office of Technology Assessment which is supposed to advise Congress on matters concerned with basic research. I give lectures at universities all over the country, and abroad. I get roped into being on a lot of committees. I try to keep that at a minimum, unless I feel that I can do some good on them, because I think sometimes you get asked to do things simply because you have the reputation and not really because you can do some good. I don't want to waste my time that way.
It doesn't sound like a terribly relaxing schedule.
Gertrude Elion: Well, I relax. I go to the opera occasionally. I still have my Metropolitan Opera subscription after I don't know how many years. It means going up to New York for the weekend, but I have friends in New York, and we enjoy it together. I enjoy traveling. I've traveled most of the world now. For example, I went to the International Cancer Congress in Hamburg last summer. I go to meetings, because I don't want to stop learning.
What mystery would you most like to crack as a chemist?
Gertrude Elion: I would like to find something that is a cure for cancer, even if it's not in 100 percent of people with that cancer. There is a secret still to be learned about the cancer cell, that we need to unravel. We certainly haven't solved the problem in AIDS, but the cancer problem has been around for a lot longer, and it's a lot of different diseases. It is a much more prevalent disease than it used to be because people live longer, and it is generally a disease that hits people in their 50s, 60s, 70s. These are people with useful lives still ahead of them. We need to put a lot more effort into cancer research. I am worried that we are beginning to throw up our hands and say, "There is nothing we can do about it." That's not true.
If you had had that attitude with viruses, we wouldn't have the antiviral drugs we have today.
Gertrude Elion: That's right. There are a lot of new leads and new information about what controls the cancer cell. If you find out what the key to the control of cell growth is, you could probably stop the cancer from growing. It may not have to be a toxic compound, it may just have to be a regulatory compound. That's what cancer is, it's a growth out of control. You shouldn't necessarily have to kill the cell, if you could teach it how to get under control again.
Lets go back to the moment you found out you were a winner of the Nobel Prize. Where were you, how did you come to find out about it?
Gertrude Elion: It was 6:30 in the morning. I was getting dressed, A phone call came from a reporter, who said "Congratulations, you've just won the Nobel Prize in Medicine." And I said, "Quit your kidding. I don't think its funny. Whoever put you up to it, I think it's a sick joke." And he said, "No, really, it's true." I said, "I haven't heard anything about it, how do you know about it?" And he said, "They put out a press release from Stockholm at noon Stockholm time," which is 6:00 am New York time. I told him "I don't really believe you. And he said I won it together with Dr. Hitchings and Sir James Black. And I thought, "I wonder where he got those names from." I hung up, and a minute later, another reporter called. We went through this for the rest of the day. When I got on the McNeil/Lehrer Report that night, they said "When did you find out you won it?" And I said, "I still haven't heard from the Nobel Committee!" Lehrer said, "Take my word for it, it's true." I did finally get a telegram the next day. They had been trying to reach me by phone, but the phone was constantly occupied. So that's how I found out. I never finished dressing, before there was a reporter at the door from a local newspaper, and I'm trying to answer the phone, and trying to comb my hair, and the photographer is taking pictures, and some of those pictures are really weird.
Why were you so surprised?
Gertrude Elion: It just never occurred to me. For one thing, I had retired, the work had been done. I think Dr. Hitchings felt the same way. He thought, if they were going to give it to him, it would have been ten years ago, 15 years ago. I never thought they'd give it to me. I knew he'd been nominated because people would write me to ask for a copy of his CV (curriculum vitae), but I didn't know anyone had nominated me. In any event, if they had, it was all in the past. So I had no reason to believe that in 1988 this would happen.
You had a couple of strikes against you as tradition goes, being a woman and of not having a Ph.D.
Gertrude Elion: Yes. And being in industry. That's three strikes. Very few Nobel Prizes have been given to people in industry. Some in physics, people working for General Electric, and so on. But in medicine, practically nobody. If you look back you will see this. And women, there... well, I was number five in medicine. There had been some in chemistry, and a few in physics. But industry is definitely not considered the place for discovery in medicine. So it was unusual in many regards. It was that. It was also... that generally they are given earlier in life for some one's discovery, some sort of landmark thing. Not generally for a sort of lifetime of work. That's unusual. So there were many reasons why it was not expected.
How many medical Nobel Laureates have not had Ph.D.s? I read somewhere that you were it.
Gertrude Elion: Gertrude Elion: That may well be. I've never looked to see.
You've worked with a lot of younger scientists over the years. What personal characteristics do you feel are necessary to be successful in this career?
Gertrude Elion: I think the first thing is to want to do it, to really feel that this is what you want to do. The other is not to let people discourage you by telling you this isn't what you should be doing, or this isn't what people of your kind do. I always quote Admiral Farragut, and say "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
What problem now, in society, concerns you?
Gertrude Elion: I'm concerned about education. I'm concerned about peace. You can't live in this world without realizing how many lives are destroyed needlessly. I think that we don't put enough stress on education anymore. The kind of education that we used to have for young people had more discipline and made more demands on them. We've sort of let things slide and say, "We shouldn't teach math. We shouldn't teach Latin. That's too difficult." Children are very impressionable, they are very curious. You've got to take advantage of that curiosity, to let them realize that there is a big world out there they can discover. If you don't do it when they are young, you are not going to get them back again.
You've done a lot of speaking out about protection of the rain forest. Why?
Gertrude Elion: I was in Brazil at a meeting, and I was interviewed by a reporter from Reuters, who asked me only questions about the environment. It's not my specialty. I am very well aware that there are interesting medicinal plants in the rain forest that people have begun to discover. I also had taken a trip on the Amazon, on boat, and had seen the burning forests, and was very upset by that. All of this was being destroyed without any appreciation of what was being destroyed. So when I was asked about it, I spoke my mind.
And are we on the right track, then?
Gertrude Elion: I think people are beginning to appreciate the problem, but the problem is multiple. The rain forests are being burnt is because people need more room to live. On the other hand, they are destroying their livelihood. They are going to have floods, they are going to have problems with the air and so on by destroying all these trees. It's a case of solving one problem by creating another one. It's all very well for us to come and say, "You people are destroying your rain forests," but they can say, "But we have to live. Where are we going to live? We don't have any more space in the cities, we have to expand." Unless somebody takes that problem into consideration, they are going to create a new one.
If you could come back in another life, is there any secret ambition that you would love to accomplish?
Gertrude Elion: I'd love to be an opera singer. I have a terrible voice. Essentially a monotone. As a kid, I can remember trying to sing and being asked if I really had to. I enjoy the human voice so much. I don't think I'd really seriously want to be an opera singer. But that's one of the things in my life that I've always felt very sorry about, that I wasn't more musical, myself.
What is it about opera that is so wonderful?
Gertrude Elion: It's a combination of music and drama. The emotions that one gets from listening to people who can act well as well as sing well is, I find, much greater than either one alone. I can cry over Madame Butterfly, and feel a kind of feeling I would never feel from seeing the same thing in drama, or just hearing music without the human voice.
Is there a composer you are especially fond of?
Gertrude Elion: Puccini, mostly. And Verdi... and Mozart.
Well thank you so much. I've really enjoyed it.
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This page last revised on Nov 08, 2007 11:40 EDT