George Hitchings knew right away that Gertrude Elion was special.
“We had maybe four or five interviews for this job as an assistant in the biochemistry department,” Hitchings recalled. “But after I talked to Trudy, I told the research director, ‘This is the one we’re looking for.’ ”
Elion, 70, also clearly remembers that meeting.
“George didn’t ask me any questions. I had three other job offers, and they had all asked what the last book was that I had read and that sort of thing. George never did. He just started talking about what they were doing. He was so excited about it that I thought, ‘This is the place I want to work.’ ”
That 1944 job interview launched a lifelong collaboration developing medicines for leukemia, malaria, gout, herpes and kidney transplant rejection--a collaboration that led to a share of this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine.
“When we started it was all trial and error,” Hitchings said. “You’d develop a compound and take some kind of target--usually a mouse--plug it in and see what it did or didn’t do. Over the last 40 years, there has been more shifting to our system.”
Hitchings and Elion’s “rational” approach to pharmacology involves probing the chemistry behind a disease and then developing chemical compounds to fight it.
Hitchings had been working on nucleic acids at Burroughs Wellcome Corp. for two years as the company’s only biochemist when he hired Elion.
She had a master’s degree in chemistry from New York University and went part-time for two or three years, but “my professor told me if I wanted a Ph.D., I would have to go full-time. I told him I couldn’t do that because I liked my job too much.”
Hitchings, however, had no reservations about her abilities.
“That’s the great thing about industry,” he said, pointing to other scientists at Burroughs Wellcome who do not have doctorates. “I think that is maybe more important in academia than it is here.”
Besides, Hitchings said, “She could have had a doctorate at any time. There was never any question about that.” Elion later was awarded honorary doctorates, making her--in her words--an “honest woman.”
Elion wanted a career in research, but ended up teaching high school among other jobs after earning a chemistry degree from Hunter College. World War II helped her get into the field she wanted.
War Gave Opportunity
“At the time, women really weren’t expected to go into those kinds of jobs,” she said. “But the war had taken all the men, so that gave me my opportunity.”
Hitchings also had wandered through other jobs--at Harvard and Western Reserve universities--before getting the work he wanted in research. “I got my (doctoral) degree at Harvard at the bottom of the Depression. There simply were no jobs, really. So I kind of pieced together a living until Burroughs Wellcome came along. In the back of my mind, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Elion said she and Hitchings had been successful partners for 44 years because they “just kept working. There was no time for anything else.”
And neither of them was concerned about who got the credit.
“As the scope of our work grew and I took on assistants of my own, we would spend a lot of time talking through a problem,” she said. “By the end of our discussions, we’d usually come up with an approach, but neither one of us would remember who had originally come up with the approach. There never was any of this, ‘Oh, that was my idea,’ between us.”
Elion, never married, and Hitchings, a widower since 1985, are officially retired from Burroughs Wellcome. But they both report every day when they’re not on the road lecturing. “People around here just laugh when I say I’m retired,” Elion said. “I do like to stay busy.”
Hitchings also has stayed busy with charity. “My life now is about one-third philanthropy and two-thirds science,” he said.
In 1983, he founded the Greater Triangle Community Foundation, a confederation of charities that makes grants to area nonprofit agencies. His $130,000 share of the Nobel Prize will go to the George and Beverly Hitchings Endowment, established by friends and relatives for the foundation in 1985 to mark his 80th birthday.
Hitchings met his wife when he moved from his home state of Washington to study for his doctorate at Harvard. He took a room in the home of a Methodist minister, and one of the minister’s daughters, Beverly, caught his eye.
“Within a few weeks, we were committed for life,” Hitchings said. “She was my greatest encouragement and biggest fan.”
She also kept a close eye on him when he became too involved with research, sometimes taking their two children to the lab to drag him out to dinner.
“I remember one morning I got up and made a sandwich, stuck it in my pocket and headed down to the lab. I figured it must be some kind of holiday because there wasn’t anyone around but me.
“I worked all day, ate my sandwich at lunch, and when I got home, Beverly said, ‘George, do you realize you just spent New Year’s Day at the lab?’ I really hadn’t thought of it.”
Elion created an extended family of young scientists and serves as a doting aunt to her nieces and nephews and their children.
“My brother had the foresight to marry and have four children,” she said of Herbert, a physicist who lives in California. “I was fairly one-sided, spending most of my time working.”
“She’s always been ‘Aunt Trudy’ to my family, too,” Hitchings said.
An opera buff, she makes frequent trips to New York, her hometown. She also is an avid world traveler. “One of my friends said it would make a shorter list if I just put down the places I haven’t been,” she said.
Elion said she had no regrets that her work had kept her from a “normal” family life. “I might have if what I was doing was not so much fun. My mother used to ask me the same thing. I’d bring work home on the weekend and she’d always say, ‘Does your boss know you’re bringing work home every weekend?’
“And I’d always tell her I wasn’t doing it for him. I was doing it for me.”