…the drugs I’ve developed are rewards in themselves. -Gertrude B. Elon
Happy Birthday Gertrude Elion! Gertrude Elion would be celebrating her 99th birthday today, unfortunately she left this world in 1999. Elion was a biochemist and a pharmacologist, and unlike many of the other women I have focused on this month, she never obtained a formal PhD. However, much like many of the other women she earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988. She holds many honors and awards including being inducted in the National Academy of Sciences and earning the National Medal of Science in 1991.
Impact Elion worked for the World Health Organization, the National Cancer Institute, and Burroughs-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline), among others. Her pharmaceutical discoveries include the first treatment for leukemia, and the first immunosuppressant, both of these were used for organ transplant medications. She has also impacted the development of drugs for treating gout, malaria, meningitis, and herpes.
Dedication Elion got her M.Sc. while teaching high school during the day. She was rejected fifteen (15) times for fellowships, but what ultimately hindered her from obtaining her PhD was that she could not attend school part time. She now holds honorary degrees from Harvard and the school she began her studies with. She was appointed an Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and of Experimental Medicine at Duke, and later was a Research Professor there as well.
Closing Thoughts I learned about Elion because of her many fellowship rejections. It was a great lesson in failure not being the answer, among other things. Knowing that sometimes you just need to find the right avenue in which to pursue your goals is important. Also, remembering why you want to do something. Elion made a choice to keep her job and not pursue her PhD because that was her goal. In the end, she still got the fame and fortune because she was good at what she did. There are times when life will make us evaluate what we have in front of us and next to us, and make us put it into perspective. I use Elion’s story to help me through difficult times and decisions, when I receive a rejection letter I remember that this just wasn’t the right opportunity for me. When I decide on a goal and I need to achieve it, I think about what (and who) is going to help me do that. Her story is a remarkable one, especially if you are struggling.