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Honorary Doctorates Awarded to Chemists


Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999)

June 1993


Gertrude Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine.

Her major achievements included the development of drugs to treat leukemia, gout, herpes virus infection, and to prevent rejection in organ transplants.

At the age of 15, she chose a career in molecular sciences and decided to go into cancer research to find a cure for cancer. In 1937, she earned a bachelors degree with highest honors from Hunter College. Living at home, and working as a high school teacher, she took evening classes and earned a masters degree in chemistry from New York University in 1941.

She experienced discrimination in the 1940s and had a difficult time finding a job that matched her ability and training. But since male chemists were away there was a need for chemists during World War II. Her employment chances improved and she worked first in a food laboratory, then in a research laboratory. In the mid-1940s, she joined the Burroughs-Wellcome Company where she remained, working with Dr. George Hitchings until her retirement.

She had applied to fifteen graduate schools asking for aid so she could pursue her doctorate, and was turned down by all. Later she was to receive 25 honorary doctorates, including a Doctor of Science from the University of South Florida (hon. causa) in June, 1993.

In 1991, she was the first woman to be inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The other 119 initially inducted included Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright brothers. She also received the National Medal of Science, the Medal of Honor (American Cancer Society), and the ACS Garvan Medal.

Sources: Susan Casey (1997) Women Invent!; Chemical Heritage