Basking in the acclaim of the Nobel Prize in Medicine last week, drug researcher Gertrude B. Elion also recalled an earlier time, long ago and less upbeat.
It was 1937, the depth of the Great Depression. Fresh out of college with a degree in chemistry, Elion couldn't find a paying job.
"There weren't many jobs," she remembers, "and what jobs there were, were not for women."
No matter that she was bright, hardworking, dedicated -- and had graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Hunter College in New York.
"It didn't make a particle of difference," Elion says. "I was a woman."
She had to settle for a nonpaying job as a lab assistant in a New York nursing school for six months before she was promoted onto the payroll -- at $12 a week. Over the next few years, while going to graduate school at night, she worked by turns as a high school teacher, a food analyst and a research assistant.
None of those jobs satisfied her ambition to become a cancer researcher -- a goal she set for herself after her grandfather died of stomach cancer when she was a senior in high school.
Ironically, it was the outbreak of World War II that gave Elion and other women of her generation the opportunity to pursue their chosen careers.
"It was only when men weren't available that women were invited into the lab," she said.
Her big break came in 1944, when she got a job at Wellcome Research Laboratories in Tuckahoe, N.Y., as a research assistant to biochemist George H. Hitchings. When she was hired, the laboratory's staff of about 75 included only two women. After the war, at a time when American women were choosing between pursuing a career and raising a family, Elion stayed on at the lab.
In a collaboration that has lasted to this day, Elion and Hitchings advanced the understanding of cellular metabolism and helped develop a variety of drugs for treatment of such diseases as leukemia, malaria, gout, herpes and, most recently, AIDS.
For their pioneering pharmaceutical research, Elion and Hitchings were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. They share the honor with Sir James Black, a British researcher who discovered important drugs for treatment of high blood pressure, heart disease and ulcers.
Elion got the news last Monday morning at 6:30 when a radio reporter telephoned her at home as she was getting dressed for work. "Congratulations," he said. "You've won the Nobel Prize in Medicine."
"You're kidding," she said, suspecting a hoax. Only after the reporter named the co-winners did she begin to believe him. She rushed to her office, and the rest of the day was a blur of congratulatory visits, phone calls and telegrams.
Neither she nor Hitchings knew they had been nominated for this year's Nobel Prize. Once before, years ago, the grapevine told them they were under consideration, but when nothing came of it they put it out of their minds. After all, some of their most important scientific research had occurred a generation ago, and besides, Nobel prizes are more likely to go to academic scientists than to those in industry.
Any danger that the Nobel Prize will go to her head?
"I don't think so," she laughed. "My head has been screwed down for a hell of a long time, and I know my deficiencies."
"Oh, I'm not going to tell you," she said coyly. "If I'd discovered a cure for cancer, it might go to my head. But I haven't done that yet."
Not yet. More than 40 years after they teamed up at Wellcome Research Laboratories, Elion and Hitchings still work at the labs, now located in Research Triangle Park, N.C. He is 83, and she is 70. Each holds the title of scientist emeritus.
She arrives at her office each weekday morning at 7:30 ("I'm an early bird"). These days, though she is no stranger in the laboratory, she spends most of her time editing cancer journals, holding seminars, lecturing, consulting with other scientists, advising students at nearby Duke University. Among numerous other appointments, she's a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board and chairs an advisory committee of the World Health Organization.
"Everyone laughs when I say I'm retired, because I'm really doing just as much as before," said Elion, who never married and lives alone in Chapel Hill, N.C. "And in a sense I'm doing what I always said I didn't want to do -- teaching."
Elion is that increasingly rare phenomenon -- a prominent scientist without a doctorate. If that held her back at first, it soon became "irrelevant," she said.
"It was harder to prove myself without the PhD," she said, "but it probably meant I worked twice as hard." She has three honorary doctorates, from Brown University, George Washington University and the University of Michigan.
Working in a laboratory, Elion said, is mostly "hands-on fun."
But not always. It can be a tedious business, full of false starts and wrong turns.
"I tell my students that a negative answer is still an answer," she said. "There's no such thing as failure in the sense of not finding what you expected to find. If you've done it and it doesn't work, you don't have to do it again."
Elion used to tell friends that the reason she didn't want to teach was because she didn't have the patience -- "which everybody now thinks is hysterically funny, because you need a lot more patience in research than in teaching."
In all this, she still finds time for other interests -- travel, photography and music. She loves opera -- especially Puccini -- and 18 years after moving to North Carolina from New York, she keeps her subscription to the Metropolitan Opera.
And reading -- mostly nonfiction, particularly biography: "Right now, I'm in the midst of Armand Hammer. Fascinating!"
Long after she first read them, Paul De Kruif's "Microbe Hunters" and Sinclair Lewis' "Arrowsmith" are still among her favorite books. Her childhood heroes were Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie -- "people who discovered things." Madame Curie, who won a Nobel Prize in both 1903 and 1911, was one of the few women who had made a mark in science by the 1930s -- not that Elion was looking for female role models to inspire her.
"I shouldn't say this -- the women won't like me to say it -- but I never thought of needing role models who were women," Elion said. "I never considered that I was a woman and then a scientist. My role models didn't have to be women -- they could be scientists."
The most exciting thing about being a scientist, she said, is the search itself.
For a biochemist in a large pharmaceutical laboratory, that means seeing drugs "not only as ends in themselves but as tools for finding out where cells are vulnerable."
In brief, most of her research begins by asking what makes a cancer cell, for example, different from a normal cell -- so that "we can know where to attack."
All living cells, including cancerous ones, must divide in order to multiply. In doing so, they all have to manufacture deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the chains of molecules that make up genes carrying their hereditary blueprint.
"If we can interfere with DNA synthesis in the abnormal cell without harming the normal cell," Elion said, "then we have a drug."
Selectivity is the key in pharmaceutical research, she said: "What you need is something that will hit one type of cell and not the others. Otherwise, you could just make a poison and kill all the cells." Where do good scientific ideas come from?
"Some of them are hunches," Elion said. "Some of them are the result of trying to figure something out that puzzles you. You constantly are thinking over the results and asking, 'What does it mean?' and "Why did it happen?' "
The original idea of working on DNA and nucleic acid came out of just such simple -- but not easy -- questions. This was before the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure.
"We knew something about the building blocks -- the bits and pieces -- but we didn't know how to put them together," she recalled.
The scientific search, Elion said, is "a constant process of deduction and intuition and trial-and-error and back-to-the-drawing-board and then, always, more questions . . ."
"And luck. Absolutely. Oh, yes. Luck."