Women of Valor


A True Humanitarian

Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999

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To Elion, the letters and photos she received from patients were the real reward.

Elion was a true humanitarian as well as an outstanding scientist. Although she respected those who did science for science's own sake, she always kept in mind the patients whose diseases she aimed to cure and focused on the practical applications of her research. The personal tragedies she had experienced and the contact she had with patients kept the goal of curing people squarely in front of her.

Far more than she did the Nobel Prize, Elion treasured the knowledge that her work had directly benefited the lives of countless individuals. "[Y]ou can't beat the feeling that you get from those children," she said. "[W]hen the Nobel Prize came in, everybody said, 'How does it feel to get the Nobel Prize?' And I said, 'It's very nice but that's not what it's all about.' I'm not belittling the prize. The prize has done a lot for me, but if it hadn't happened, it wouldn't have made that much difference.... When you meet someone who has lived for twenty-five years with a kidney graft, there's your reward."

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"Most of the patients that I have helped have not been people that I've seen. They've written to me, and I treasure those letters. I keep every one of them, because that puts it on a very personal relationship for me. And every time I talk at a meeting or seminar, somebody always comes up and says, my child had leukemia and is now cured, or I have a transplant. I mean, it seems to me that it's so widespread, it really affects me to know how many people have really been impacted."

Elion had a great love of life and a warm personality that infected everyone around her. Those who knew her unanimously emphasize—even more than her scientific achievements—how much she cared about people, from her family and friends, to those who took her drugs, to the nameless masses who might someday benefit from her research. When it was discovered that one of her drugs was an effective treatment for Leshmaniasis disease, a serious problem in South America, she pushed hard for Burroughs Wellcome to follow up on the matter, regardless of the money involved. As a former colleague remarked, "She has a real social conscience.... In fifty years, Trudy Elion will have done more cumulatively for the human condition than Mother Theresa."

  1. Quote beginning "[Y]ou can't beat the feeling..." from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 295-297.
  2. Quote beginning "She has a real social conscience..." from Tom Krenitsky, cited in McGrayne, 297-298.
  3. Remaining information from McGrayne, 297.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Gertrude Elion - A True Humanitarian." (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/elion/true-humanitarian>.