WASHINGTON -- The National Inventors Hall of Fame selected Gertrude Belle Elion last week to be honored for her pioneering research at Burroughs Wellcome Co. that led to the development of drugs to combat leukemia, septic shock and tissue rejection in patients undergoing kidney transplants.
The recognition makes Ms. Elion, 73, the first woman to take her place alongside innovators such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Edison in the Hall of Fame since the organization was begun in 1973.
Two years ago, Ms. Elion shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with her longtime colleague, George H. Hitchings.
Ms. Elion, who was born in the
Bronx, N.Y., has been a pioneer in more ways than one. Although women have produced a number of major technological advances, they remain rare among inventors and receive only about 5 percent of all patents.
Indeed, whether discouraged by deep-seated social biases that science and engineering are not "feminine," or blocked by discrimination, women remain a vast and largely
overlooked source of potential scientific talent. "I was a maverick," Ms. Elion said last week.
At a time when most women did not go to college, she graduated from Hunter with top honors at 19 and went on to obtain a master's degree in chemistry.
In the 1940s, she and Mr. Hitchings developed variations on components of the genetic material DNA that could be used to fool cells and foil the reproductive machinery of viruses and bacteria.
What made the work remarkable was that no one had yet identified the double-helix structure of DNA or knew much about the way it worked. The Hall of Fame is a non-profit organization based in Akron, Ohio.
Inductees are selected by a panel of scientists, patent attorneys and other experts. Thus far, 94 inventors have been named to the hall.
"I'm happy to be the first woman," Ms. Elion said. "But I doubt I'll be the last."