2015 Geek-A-Long: Gertrude Elion

Week 38 Gertrude Elion (1)

“I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much.” – Gertrude B. Elion


Usually, when people talk about women in science as role models, they tend to trot out Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, sometimes even Jane Goodall or Rosalind Franklin. Other than raising awareness for Child’s Play Charity, if there’s one thing I could have everyone walk away from the 2015 Geek-A-Long having learned, it’s about Gertrude Elion. Not only is she an awesome ginger, she’s my hero.

Over a year ago, when Megan-Anne and I made a list of our favorite “mad scientists” and then battled over who would make the cut, she tried to eliminate Gertrude Elion. She said, “The name looks familiar, but I have no idea who that is.” And then I wept.

Actually, I yelled: “And that’s why she needs to be on the blanket!” Then I went on a rant about how Gertrude Elion is the only reason why it doesn’t burn when I pee. (This is an overshare, but I was just getting over a UTI at the time. Ladies, we’ve all been there. And it sucks.)

Seriously though, other than inventing numerous drugs we commonly use today — such as Septra for meningitis and urinary tract infections, Zovirax for shingles and viral herpes, and Zyloprim for gout — she created Purinethol, the first treatment for leukemia. Elion also invented other drugs used for cancer treatments, malaria, and organ transplants. But her tour de force was the development of a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT.

All of this done by a woman without a formal PHD. Gertrude Elion worked as a lab assistant and high school teacher. She took night classes in pursuit of her doctorate, but was eventually forced to chose her job over going to school full time. She dropped out, but it clearly didn’t hold her back. She invented a bunch of medicine instead and Harvard gave her an honorary degree in 1998 before she passed away in 1999.

Week 38 Gertrude Elion (3)

To represent Gertrude Elion, we chose two molecules. The larger one done in purple is Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), which is used to treat and prevent malaria. The other is 6-Mercaptopurine (Purinethol), which is used to treat leukemia, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and is used in organ transplants.

A funny story about Purinethol, my brother-in-law’s grandmother participated in the trials for it and ended up beating leukemia because of it. If it wasn’t for Gertrude Elion, a third of my family never would’ve been born.

Week 38 Gertrude Elion (2)

Whether you’re knitting, crocheting, or cross stitching this square, you can download the Gertrude Elion pattern here. Instructions for both knit and crochet are listed in the pattern. When you’re finished making it, don’t forget to tweet or instagram your squares at me @jac_attacking or Megan-Anne @Doctor_Llama with the hashtag #geekalong!

If you’re having trouble with double-sided knitting, we have a how-to video here and a tutorial on crochet here. Want to hang out with other people making the blanket? You can find moral support in the Geek-A-Long group on Ravelry here.

~ Jac
“Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t.” – Gertrude Elion

* * * * *

If you enjoyed this post, please consider making a donation to Child’s Play Charity. Here is a direct link to our donation page benefiting the charity. Please help us raise $1,000 this year! No contribution is too small.