Today, a maker of medicines reaps the reward of an
inventive life. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Gertrude Elion's father was
a dentist. He wanted her to become a dentist as
well. She was fifteen when she decided against it.
She took both biology and chemistry in high school.
Right there, she decided she'd go after a subject
where she didn't have to dissect anything. Instead
of dentistry, she finished a master's degree in
She wanted to do research. For years she hunted for
the right work. Writer Marguerite Halloway tells
about Gertrude Elion's seven-year job search. She
did food-testing, she taught, she almost quit
chemistry. Finally, in 1944, she landed a job with
the Wellcome Research Laboratory.
There, she and George Hitchings began work on
chemicals to combat leukemia. They invented drugs
that interfered with the way cancer cells
metabolized nucleic acid. They succeeded. They put
the current tools of chemotherapy in place.
Elion spent 40 years in the business of inventing
pharmaceuticals. After her success in combating
cancer, she decided not to go back to school for a
Ph.D. She could learn well enough on her own. She
and Hitchings turned their attention to implant
They modified their chemotherapy drugs to prevent
the body from rejecting skin grafts and replacement
kidneys. Later, Elion modified the chemical
structure again. This time she invented antiviral
So she followed her fascination -- through 40 years
and countless patents. Then at 6:30 one morning in
1988 her phone rang. She thought it was a prank
call. The voice on the other end told her that she
and Hitchings would share that year's Nobel Prize
Since then, people have asked her if the Nobel
Prize was the pinnacle of her career. She said, "Of
course not." She said that if you worked all your
life for an award and then didn't get it, your life
would be wasted. And hers was not wasted. That's
because her real reward was the pleasure of living
the inventive life.
I heard Elion speak at a session on women inventors
in 1990. She gave a brief and clear explanation of
the patent process in the drug business. She was no
grand dame of science. She was just a sharp,
easy-going elder telling younger scientists about
the snares of the legal and technical arena.
It felt good to see her taking such quiet pleasure
in her life. Gertrude Elion leaves us with a fine
example of what a life can be -- when it's based on
invention and creativity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds