Monday, January 23, 2012

Self-Rescuing Princess Shout-Out: Gertrude Elion

I was thinking about who to feature in today's shout-out, and decided to do a quick birthday search on Wikipedia. When I came across the entry for Gertrude B. Elion, I was intrigued by her immigrant family story, and the fact that she was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine. And then I looked at the list of medicines she invented. She invented Acyclovir, which has been quite helpful in my life. See, at age 40, I developed shingles, and Acyclovir is the anti-viral used to treat it, as well as the other forms of herpes (like chicken pox and cold sores). So, clearly I needed to learn more about this amazing woman!

Her online Nobel Prize autobiography was a great place to start. She was a smart child who loved learning and had the grades to allow her to attend one of the free colleges available at the time. After college, she had to search for a job during the Great Depression, where any laboratory jobs were already scarce, and generally only open to men. Eventually, she landed a position working in a lab that helped her pay her way through graduate school in Chemistry. While studying for her Master's Degree at night, she taught high school Chemistry during the day. What amazing dedication to her goals!

After receiving her Master's Degree, at the beginning of World War 2, she worked as a lab assistant for a while, and eventually found a position working in a lab with Dr. Hitchings (also, pictured above), where he let her learn as much as she cared to, and she was able to come into her own.

While she was working with Dr. Hitchings, she was also working on her doctorate at night! Sadly, eventually, the university would no longer allow her to study part-time, and told her she would have to quit her laboratory job.
"I made what was then a critical decision in my life, to stay with my job and give up the pursuit of a doctorate. Years later, when I received three honorary doctorate degrees from George Washington University, Brown University and the University of Michigan, I decided that perhaps that decision had been the right one after all."
Reading her autobiography, I get the sense that she always truly enjoyed her life in the lab, even if it was challenging. It almost feels as though it was the challenge that she enjoyed.
"Each series of studies was like a mystery story in that we were constantly trying to deduce what the microbiological results meant, with little biochemical information to help us."
And she apparently received a great deal of pleasure knowing her research was helping people.
"When we began to see the results of our efforts in the form of new drugs which filled real medical needs and benefited patients in very visible ways, our feeling of reward was immeasurable."
She was awarded many honors in her lifetime, including the National Medal of Science, and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. According to the Wikipedia entry for her, she even has her very own chapter in Tom Brokaw's book Greatest Generation.

Now I know who to thank the next time I have a cold sore and the medicine I take works so quickly! And if I ever break out with shingles again (please, no), I'll be sure to give her extra thanks!

In the meantime, I'd like to say how thankful I am that Gertrude Elion was born on January 23, 1918.

Happy Birthday, Gertrude!


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