Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999
By the time Elion earned her Master's degree, World War II was in full swing. With many male scientists now involved in the war effort, chemical laboratories were finally willing to look to women to fill jobs. Elion began working as a food chemistry analyst for the Quaker Maid Company, measuring the acidity of pickles, the color of mayonnaise, and the mold levels on fruit. After a year and a half, however, she was eager to find a research job. She found a promising position at Johnson & Johnson, only to see the lab close six months later.
In June 1944, as Elion was weighing several job offers with which she was not quite satisfied, her father received a sample of painkiller at his dental office. Noticing that Burroughs Wellcome, the pharmaceutical company that made the drug, was located in nearby Tuckahoe, New York, he suggested Trudy inquire about a job. That Saturday, she was interviewed by Dr. George Hitchings. Elion was intrigued by Hitchings' research project; he was impressed by the young woman's intelligence and energy. Over the next decades, the Hitchings-Elion partnership proved immensely fruitful.
For the first time, Elion had a job she truly found intellectually stimulating, and she adored it. She voluntarily brought work home every weekend, and when once she came home empty-handed, her mother assumed she was sick. Conditions were often difficult; with the lab located directly above the dryers for an infant formula, Elion had to wear thick, rubber-soled shoes to withstand the floor's 140° heat. But the staff had water fights to break the heat, and Elion was thrilled that Hitchings encouraged her and his other assistant, Elvira Falco, to pursue their research independently. As she said in 1990, "I originally set out thinking, 'I'm going to stay here as long as I continue to learn.' Here I am, 46 years later and I'm still learning."
- Quote "I originally set out thinking...." from Interview with Gertrude B. Elion, March 6, 1991, Academy of Achievement, accessed February 16, 2000; available at http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/eli0int-1.
- Remaining information from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 288-289.