Women of Valor

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Personal Tragedy

Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999

After graduating from college, Elion met and fell in love with Leonard Canter, a handsome young statistics major at City College. After he graduated, Canter received a fellowship to study abroad, and through the letters they exchanged, he and Elion fell even more in love. After he returned, they planned to get married.

In 1941, the young couple's dreams were shattered when Canter fell ill with acute bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart. A few years later, his illness would have been easily cured by penicillin, but at the time, little could be done. Six months later, Canter died.

Canter's death, like her grandfather's, spurred Elion's scientific drive. "It reinforced in my mind the importance of scientific discovery, that it really was a matter of life and death to find treatments for diseases that hadn't been cured before," she said. A decade and a half later, that message was again intensified in a very personal manner when Elion's mother died of cervical cancer in 1956.

Following her fiancé's death, Elion threw herself even more into her work. None of her subsequent suitors could ever live up to Leonard, and she never married. Her brother's children and grandchildren took the place of the children she never had; indeed, she called her niece and nephews "our children," occasionally even "my children." Her great-nieces and -nephews adored her, and one even referred to her as "my goddess."

Notes: 
  1. Quote "It reinforced in my mind...." 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), 136.
  2. Quotes about "our children," "my children," and "my goddess" from "Gertrude Elion Memorial" (Video), March 27, 1999, GlaxoSmithKline Inc. Heritage Center.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Gertrude Elion - Personal Tragedy." (Viewed on April 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/elion/personal-tragedy>.