The Nobel Prize
Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999
At 6:30 am on October 17, 1988, Elion was getting dressed when a reporter called to congratulate her on winning the Nobel Prize. Startled, she retorted, "Quit your kidding. I don't think it's funny. Whoever put you up to it, I think it's a sick joke." When reporters continued to call, reality finally sank in: Elion, Hitchings, and Sir James W. Black of the University of London had indeed been awarded the Prize in Physiology or Medicine, "for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment."
With the main body of their work having been done decades earlier, the prize came as a complete surprise. Elion knew that Hitchings had been nominated in the past, but she had no idea she herself had ever been nominated. In fact, when Hitchings and Elion were nominated as a pair, a Nobel Committee member asked why Elion was included, wondering if she had really contributed. Only when a professional friend of Elion's pointed out that Elion had been first author on many of the early papers, and that her antiviral discoveries had occurred after Hitchings retired, was the committee finally convinced.
Elion's receipt of the Nobel Prize was particularly significant, given the hurdles she had had to overcome. Few Nobels have gone to scientists working in the drug industry or those without Ph.D.s, even fewer to women; Elion was only the fifth female Nobel laureate in Medicine, the ninth in science in general.
Following the Nobel Prize, additional honors and recognitions poured in. Elion was elected to the National Academy of Science in 1990 and received the National Medal of Science, the United States' highest scientific honor, in 1991. Also in 1991, she became the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame. The Nobel Prize made Elion even more in demand as a speaker and a spokeswoman, and her busy schedule quickly became even busier.
- Quote beginning "Quit your kidding..." 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), 302; "Female Nobel Prize Laureates," The Nobel Prize Internet Archive, accessed January 28, 2001; available at http://www.almaz.com/nobel/women.html.