The Turning Point
Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999
Soon after graduating from high school, Elion found a focus for her widespread intellectual curiosity. Watching her beloved grandfather die painfully of stomach cancer and deciding "nobody should suffer that much," she dedicated herself to finding a cure for cancer. "That was the turning point," she later recalled. "It was as though the signal was there: 'This is the disease you're going to have to work against.' I never really stopped to think about anything else."
That fall, Elion entered Hunter College. Unlike many people of their era, the Elions never thought twice about sending their daughter to college. Trudy attributed her parents' emphasis on education to their Jewish background. "Among immigrant Jews," she said, "their one way to success was education, and they wanted all their children to be educated.... [I]t's a Jewish tradition. The person you admired most was the person with the most education. And particularly because I was the firstborn, and I loved school, and I was good in school, it was obvious that I should go on with my education. No one ever dreamt of not going to college. That never came up." Luckily for the Elions, who had suffered financially from the stock market crash of 1929, Hunter was free to those with good enough grades to get in.
In preparation for working on cancer, Elion majored in chemistry rather than biology because, as she said later, she wished to avoid dissecting animals. The all-female Hunter provided a supportive environment for studying science, and Elion commented later that it did not occur to her that there was anything unusual about her choice of a subject. "There were seventy-five chemistry majors in that class," she remembered. "[W]omen in chemistry and physics? There's nothing strange about that."
- Quote "nobody should suffer that much" 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.
- Quotes beginning "That was the turning point...", "Among immigrant Jews...." and "There were seventy-five..." from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 287.