A Mentor and a Role Model
Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999
Never very comfortable with scientific luminaries, Elion preferred to spend time with students. Speaking often to young people from elementary through medical school, she communicated the fun and excitement of science. "It's a wonderful life," she said. "I don't think I could have chosen anything that would have made me happier. I don't think people emphasize that enough—they think about the scientist as someone stuck away in the laboratory and oblivious to the rest of the world. That's the farthest thing from the truth. I feel as though I've made a contribution with my life." Urging her listeners not to be deterred from following their dreams, she often quoted Admiral Farragut: "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
Elion acquired a widespread reputation as an inspiring, approachable, down-to-earth mentor to students, assistants, and colleagues. She encouraged her staff to explore their own ideas and made it a point never to take credit for her assistants' work; unlike most scientists, she did not put her name on papers simply because the research had been done in her lab. Always a team player, she cared far more about the outcome of the lab's collective work than about her own reputation.
Elion never felt she needed female role models and preferred to be known simply as a "scientist" rather than as a "female scientist." She was acutely aware, however, of the difficulties she had encountered because of her sex, and she recognized that the Nobel Prize put her in a unique position to smooth the way for other women. Encouraging girls to pursue scientific careers was a cause dear to her heart; she was a leader of a Glaxo Wellcome (successor to Burroughs Wellcome) program that provided mentoring and scholarships for women studying science, and when Burroughs Wellcome gave her $250,000 to contribute to a charity of her choice, she created a scholarship at Hunter College for female graduate students in chemistry.
- Quote beginning "It's a wonderful life..." from Susan A. Ambrose, Kristin L. Dunkle, Barbara B. Lazarus, Indira Nair, and Deborah A. Harkus, Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 140.
- Quote beginning "Damn the torpedoes!" 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 conversation with Jonathan Elion, January 22, 2001; Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 303.