Gertrude Belle Elion met Leonard Canter, the love of her life, in July 1937, when she was 19 years old and full of bubbly charm (1). She had recently graduated in chemistry with highest honors from Hunter College, the women's branch of the free but fiercely competitive City College of New York (CCNY). Ever since her grandfather's death from cancer, scientific research had been her goal. The stock market crash in 1929 had bankrupted Elion's father, however, and she needed financial aid for graduate school.
Despite her academic record, 15 chemistry departments around the United States rejected her application, largely because she was female. For almost a decade she would be confined to marginal jobs, and she was never able to earn a Ph. D. Yet in 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the development of a scientific approach to drug discovery based on a knowledge of cell growth and purine chemistry.
She also synthesized or developed compounds that helped make organ transplantation, chemotherapy, and antiviral pharmaceuticals possible.
More than 300 love letters, written by Elion and Canter between 1937 and 1941 and discovered after her death, cast new light on how she developed the philosophy that enabled her to overcome personal tragedies and the lack of a doctoral degree.
When Elion met Canter, he was a handsome and brilliant statistics student at CCNY. Smitten, Canter saw in the redheaded Elion "a brilliant woman ... sincerity ... a vital, fresh, spontaneous, sparkling spirit ... the soft loveliness in my life." Within weeks, Elion had gently dismissed two other beaux. Canter addressed his second letter to "Dearest Gertie," and she was equally forthright with him: "It would be like an ostrich hiding it's [sic] head in the sand to ignore the general tone of your letter....