History 101—One way WWII had a positive impact for women

In my spare time {groan} I’ve been reading Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. I enjoy reading about and studying history, and WWII is one of my favorite subjects. You remember WWII , you know, that war we fought to clean up the mess from WWI. You remember WWI, the ‘war to end all wars’. As the men went to war, women went to the workplace and, even though they were ‘fired’ at the end of the war, their presence in the workplace created more opportunities for women. I know women aren’t yet on an even keel with men, but they have come a long way. In her way, my subject today opened up many opportunities to women in the sciences.

I digress, back to Tom’s book. A chapter in his book had a tremendous impact on me; it was about a woman who didn’t serve in the armed forces — and the people who did serve probably didn’t know anything about her — yet she had a tremendous impact on lives both during and after the war.

Her name is Gertrude Belle “Trudy” Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999). Trudy  was an American biochemist and pharmacologist who, working alone or with Dr. George H. Hitchings, developed a multitude of new drugs using a scientific rational approach she and George developed. This approach would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT. Trudy and George received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988.

Trudy was born in New York City to immigrant parents, Bertha and Robert Elion, a dentist. She graduated from high school at 15 and watched her grandfather die of cancer. Her goal was to find a cure for cancer. She graduated summa cum laude from Hunter College inGertrude_Elion 1937 with a major in chemistry. Trudy graduated from New York University in 1941 with a Master’s degree in science and set out to find work in a laboratory. Guess what? Nobody wanted to hire her. They told her they didn’t want a woman in the laboratory because it would be a distraction, so she had to teach high school chemistry to earn a living.

Well, I think we all know what happened on December 7, 1941, and it became the stepping stone Trudy needed to find lab work. America was at war and companies desperately needed lab workers because the men were gone. Dr. George Hitchings, a renowned biochemist at Burroughs Welcome, interviewed and hired Trudy as his research assistant for $50 a week. George hired Trudy because, even though she didn’t have a PhD, she knew more and was smarter than the other prospects, by far. Now Burroughs Welcome had two biochemists and they became “one of the most fortuitous pairings in the history of modern medical research.” Trudy and George worked together over a span of 40 years and, in trying to understand how diseases affect us, they not only developed a scientific rational approach, they were very prolific in inventing new drugs.

Medical research was a hit and miss process where a compound was developed and plugged into a mouse (usually) and see what it did or didn’t do. This was a very inefficient approach so George and Trudy decided to rewrite scientific methodology, and rewrite they did. They started with the basics—how cells reproduce in their various stages. Their research involved studying the differences in nucleic acid metabolism and they were able to develop drugs that blocked the growth and reproduction of diseased cells without destroying normal cells. Oh boy, that was hard to type, but the achievement can’t be overstated. Their method is “at the heart of cancer and antiviral research today.”

George and Trudy were well established with a staff of 1,500 (yes, 1,500) when Burroughs Welcome was purchased by Glaxo. As a department head, Trudy was a supervisor and mentor to a new generation of scientists that (here you go ladies) included many women.

Trudy’s inventions include:

  • 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia and used in organ transplantation.
  • Azathioprine(Imuran), the first immuno-supressive agent, used for organ transplants.
  • Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.
  • Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.
  • Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.
  • Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.
  • Nelarabine for cancer treatment.

Trudy, in addition to the Nobel Prize, also received the National Medal of Science in 1991 and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. Trudy is also the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1991).

Out of World War II, out of the destruction and death caused by the war, arose an opportunity for one woman to work in a research lab. How ironic!

Trudy never married. She was satisfied with being an aunt to her brother’s four children. Her grandfather’s cancer drove her into science because she never wanted to see someone suffer as he did. George and Trudy were humanistic scientists—they were interested in improving the human condition.

I have to say that they succeeded. By the way, Trudy never received a formal PhD. What a remarkable woman! What remarkable achievements! What a remarkable story! Thank you Trudy for what you did for women and humankind. Thank you Tom Brokaw for including her in your book; Trudy truly deserved her own chapter because of her achievements and because she was part of what made that generation ‘the greatest generation’.