Women of Valor


Growing Recognition

Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999

Over the years, Elion's career prospered. Despite some tensions in their relationship, George Hitchings proved not only an invaluable research partner but also a helpful mentor. Unlike many prominent scientists, he encouraged his assistants to write their own papers, and within two years, Elion began to publish the findings of her research; over the course of her career, she published over 225 papers. Hitchings also promoted her behind him up the ladder at Burroughs Wellcome. Eventually, Elion had a large department of assistants working for her.

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Gertrude Elion discussing George Hitchings' efforts to get her into the American Society of Biological Chemists

Notwithstanding her achievements, Hitchings knew that Elion was still sensitive about her lack of official academic qualifications, and he hoped that membership in the distinguished American Society of Biological Chemists would be some compensation. With three strikes against her—she was a woman, had no doctorate, and was employed in industry rather than academia—her nomination appeared unlikely, but Hitchings pushed hard and was able to secure it in the early 1950s, after the publication of her twentieth article.

Elion's prestige continued to grow. In 1962, she won the American Chemical Society's Garvan Medal; in 1967, when she was named Head of Experimental Therapy, she became the first woman to lead a major research group at Burroughs Wellcome. Two years later, she received a call from George Mandell of George Washington University, who said, "[T]he kind of work you're doing, you've long since passed what a doctorate would have meant. But we've got to make an honest woman of you. We'll give you a doctorate, so we can call you 'doctor' legitimately." As she grasped her honorary degree—the first of 25 honorary doctorates, including one from Brooklyn Polytechnic —her only thought was "I wish my mother were here."

  1. Quotes beginning "[T]he kind of work you're doing..." and "I wish my mother..." from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 298.
  2. Remaining information 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.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Gertrude Elion - Growing Recognition." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/elion/growing-recognition>.