The Job Hunt
Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999
In 1937, at the age of 19, Elion graduated from Hunter College summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Wanting to pursue a career in chemistry research, she applied to fifteen graduate schools. Despite her impressive academic record, however, not one would grant her the financial aid she needed to begin work on her Ph.D.
After being turned down for several laboratory jobs for which she was more than qualified, Elion began to realize the true source of her difficulties. Major obstacles lay in the path of women in science; with much of society believing that science was a man's business, hiring and admissions committees were unable to look beyond the fact that Elion was a woman to recognize her brilliance. "I hadn't been aware that any doors were closed to me until I started knocking on them," Elion later commented wryly. "Of course,...it was a very bad time to graduate. It was the Depression, and nobody was getting jobs. But I had taken that to mean that nobody was getting jobs."
Discouraged, Elion enrolled in secretarial school but lasted only six weeks, quitting to take a one-semester job as a lab assistant in a nursing school. Three months later, again out of a job, she began volunteering in a chemistry lab, enduring daily anti-Semitic jokes from the company president but gaining valuable experience. By the end of a year and a half, she was paid $20 a week, out of which she saved enough to enroll at New York University. The only woman in her graduate chemistry classes, she wrote her thesis at night and on weekends while working first as a doctor's receptionist and then as a substitute teacher of high-school chemistry and physics. In 1941, she received her Master's degree.
- Quote beginning "I hadn't been aware...." from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 287.
- Remaining information from McGrayne, 287-288; 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.