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No. 649:
Gertrude Elion

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Today, a maker of medicines reaps the reward of an inventive life. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Gertrude Elion's father was a dentist. He wanted her to become a dentist as well. She was fifteen when she decided against it. She took both biology and chemistry in high school. Right there, she decided she'd go after a subject where she didn't have to dissect anything. Instead of dentistry, she finished a master's degree in chemistry.

She wanted to do research. For years she hunted for the right work. Writer Marguerite Halloway tells about Gertrude Elion's seven-year job search. She did food-testing, she taught, she almost quit chemistry. Finally, in 1944, she landed a job with the Wellcome Research Laboratory.

There, she and George Hitchings began work on chemicals to combat leukemia. They invented drugs that interfered with the way cancer cells metabolized nucleic acid. They succeeded. They put the current tools of chemotherapy in place.

Elion spent 40 years in the business of inventing pharmaceuticals. After her success in combating cancer, she decided not to go back to school for a Ph.D. She could learn well enough on her own. She and Hitchings turned their attention to implant rejection.

They modified their chemotherapy drugs to prevent the body from rejecting skin grafts and replacement kidneys. Later, Elion modified the chemical structure again. This time she invented antiviral drugs.

So she followed her fascination -- through 40 years and countless patents. Then at 6:30 one morning in 1988 her phone rang. She thought it was a prank call. The voice on the other end told her that she and Hitchings would share that year's Nobel Prize in medicine.

Since then, people have asked her if the Nobel Prize was the pinnacle of her career. She said, "Of course not." She said that if you worked all your life for an award and then didn't get it, your life would be wasted. And hers was not wasted. That's because her real reward was the pleasure of living the inventive life.

I heard Elion speak at a session on women inventors in 1990. She gave a brief and clear explanation of the patent process in the drug business. She was no grand dame of science. She was just a sharp, easy-going elder telling younger scientists about the snares of the legal and technical arena.

It felt good to see her taking such quiet pleasure in her life. Gertrude Elion leaves us with a fine example of what a life can be -- when it's based on invention and creativity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Holloway, M., The Satisfaction of Delayed Gratification. Scientific American, October 1991, pp. 40-44.

Elion, G.B., The Importance of Patents to Medical Research. Bicentennial Proceedings, Events, and Addresses. Washington, D.C.: Foundation For A Creative America, 1991, pp. 488-492.