The Post – Broken Pieces and the Nobel Prize

Several months ago, I was invited to join a friend to attend a presentation of the personal effects of a former Burroughs Wellcome scientist who had died. To say she was a scientist, is both a major understatement and a total truth at the same time. In reading the booklet she wrote about her life, it’s obvious that first, foremost, and in her deepest heart places, she was a scientist, and to her, that was her reward. No claim to fame, degree, paycheck, whatever, motivated her. She was motivated by total love of what she did and a passion to do it above anything. So yes she was a scientist to the core.

But she was no ordinary scientist. Gertrude B. Elion. She was born in 1918 and unlike most women then, was fortunate enough to go to college, attending a women’s college in New York City, Hunter College. Unlike most women, even those in college, she pursued a degree in Chemistry. There were other women in that field, most planning to teach, but only a small number, Gertrude included, wanted to become laboratory scientists. She was motivated to pursue this dream after watching a beloved grandfather die a difficult death from stomach cancer. She felt the branch of science with the most potential for medical breakthroughs for cancer, would be chemistry. Thus, her choice.

Her grades in high school were good enough to qualify her for free tuition, and she graduated summa cum laude. However, reality awaited her upon graduation, as she noted: “What had made me think that graduating “summa cum laude” would open any doors for me to a research laboratory?” The most common response she received during an entire summer of job-hunting was “We have never had a woman in the laboratory; we think you would be a distracting influence.”

After short stints in secretarial school, and teaching biochemistry in nursing school, she had a reprieve from a young chemist friend who brought her into his lab for free initially, but eventually was able to pay her a small salary. World War II gave her the break she’d been unable to get. As she put it, “it opened the doors for women to work in chemistry laboratories. While the men were away, employers had to take a risk.”

Okay, so she was admirable in that she loved chemistry enough to work for nothing, and to keep trying until she got a real job in it. No question, a great achievement for a woman at that time. And certainly she was in the minority, but still, there were other women who managed to achieve the same thing she did in a difficult time. So what else made her special?

She managed to parlay a number of pharmaceutical jobs and part-time graduate college attendance into a Master’s degree and a job at Burroughs Wellcome. She followed the company when it left New York and moved to some unheard of, at that time, place in North Carolina called Research Triangle Park. She and a few others began to do ground-breaking research with nucleic acids, something very few others were doing at that time, and things even fewer people had ever heard of. Who knew what purines and pyrimidines were in June of 1944? Even she didn’t know.

She stayed with that job and career through the 1950s, described by her as the “golden age of nucleic acid biochemistry.” It was a time of discoveries in various synthesis processes and pathways, and the discovery of the structure of DNA. Her work over the next several years involved developing better treatments for childhood leukemia, delving into the field of immunosuppression and transplantation, developing a new treatment for gout and other chemotherapeutic agents. So again, no question a remarkable career, one anyone could take pride in. But wait…there’s more.

She and her group started into the study of antiviral treatments, again, a new area of research, and began working with the herpes virus. That group of researchers came up with an exciting new antiviral agent, acyclovir. It showed a great deal of activity against herpes viruses and thus began a number of studies to determine just how effective the drug could be. This culminated in the development and eventual FDA approval of the herpes drug: Zovirax. Over time she watched as their drug’s use expanded to include treatment for mucocutaneous, ocular, and oral herpes, genital herpes, herpes encephalitis, shingles, and chicken pox. The drug was also used to protect immunosuppressed patients undergoing bone marrow or organ transplants or cancer chemotherapy, from activation of any latent herpes infection in their bodies.

She retired in 1983 and one would think these achievements would be sufficient for satisfaction for her life’s work. However, retirement was anything but quiet. She was asked to stay on at Burroughs Wellcome as Scientist Emeritus and a consultant. She became president of the American Association for Cancer Research, and served on the National Cancer Advisory Boards, a Steering Committee for Filariasis for the World Health Organization, and continued to work with the team at BW that had brought Zovirax to market. She was there to watch the expansion of the antiviral team and their newest research project, a new antiviral drug called: azidothymidine…also called zidovudine, or Retrovir, or maybe the most wellknown name for the drug by most people: AZT….for the treatment of AIDS.

Finally, in 1988, she and her colleagues George Hitchings and Sir James Black were notified they had been given the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicince. When asked if this wasn’t what she had sought after all her life, Gertrude replied:

“Nothing could be farther from the truth. It never occurred to me that I might be considered for this award. My rewards had already come in seeing children with leukemia survive, meeting patients with long-term kidney transplants, and watching acyclovir save lives and reduce suffering.”

So a Nobel Prize winner, thus an amazing scientist, but at heart, just a true blue scientist.

If all this wasn’t enough to pack into one professional life, retirement and the award brought more. She was now in great demand by the press, television, universities, various boards, and continued to receive even more honors. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was given the National Medal of Science and many honorary degrees. These last ones gave her the PhD she was never able to get on her own, being too busy with her work. Before her death she mentored students at the Duke University Medical Center as a Research Professor of Pharmacology and Medicine, guiding students through research into brain tumor biochemistry, pharmacology, and chemotherapies of various kinds.

So…all this from someone who might be a “distraction in the lab,” couldn’t finish secretarial school, and worked for nothing in her first laboratory job, just because …she wanted to be a scientist. QUITE an AMAZING scientist, but in her heart, she was simply – scientist. Dedicated. Passionate. Successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but still, scientist. That was her biggest reward.

Ah yes, the personal effects. There were many books, framed degrees, posters, papers, awards, etc. on display in a small conference room. Everyone was allowed to select a couple of items if they wanted. My friend and I went, curious about what a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist would have in her office and on her desk. What sorts of things does a Nobel Laureate value, or have to inspire and guide them? Does a Nobel Laureate have the sorts of things an ordinary person would? Or are they beyond the ordinary and more into something amazing and unexpected?

Among all the many amazing degrees and awards, came my answer. Super-scientist she might be, but human to the core. I selected one item and for me, it was most interesting. I would love to know the story behind it. It’s s simple, silver-framed poem by someone I’ve never heard of. I have searched for information on the author of the poem but can find none.

The poem’s title is: Broken Pieces.

For sure, given this blog’s focus, it fits to be mentioned here. And I love it’s words and thoughts and find them inspiring. But I guess it was not the sort of thing I initially expected a Nobel Laureate to have given they are so amazing and famous and why would they need encouragement? But Gertrude, for all her honors, was a humble person who knew who she was at her core. And she spent much of her career studying the tiny broken building block pieces that made up each of us. So maybe there remained a humility and an awe of just what it takes to create a person. Or perhaps it’s a poem written for someone else and she just liked it or it had sentimental value for her. I’ll never know the story behind the piece, but it’s presence in her office, and it’s message intrigued and inspired me. Perhaps it will intrigue and inspire others.

So for all, in today’s Gift post below, the poem: Broken Pieces, from the desk of Gertrude B. Elion, chemist first, famous person second.


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