Category Archives: Science & Technology

Jews in the World of Science and Technology

Jew of the Week: Gertrude Elion

The Woman Who Saved Millions of Lives

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999) was born in New York to Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish immigrants. She excelled at school, and when her grandfather passed away from cancer, was determined to find the cure. She went on to volunteer as an assistant in a chemistry lab, and was eventually hired for just $20 a week. She used that money to pay for school, earning her Master’s in chemistry in 1941. Unfortunately, Elion was rejected for all fellowships and post-graduate positions because of her gender. Instead, she went to work for a supermarket, testing food quality. From there, she got a job as an assistant in a New York pharmacology lab (now owned by GlaxoSmithKline). Working under the supervision of George Hitchings, she developed two new anti-cancer drugs by 1950. Elion continued to work at the lab, and eventually became the head of its Experimental Therapy department. Despite never formally earning a Ph.D, she was a professor of pharmacology at Duke University between 1971 and 1999. Among the drugs that Elion developed are Purinethol (the first leukemia medication), Daraprim (to treat malaria), and Acyclovir (the first and most common antiviral medication, used to treat herpes, chicken pox, and shingles). Azathioprine, a drug to prevent organ transplant rejection which Elion discovered in 1963, has since been used to ensure successful kidney transplants for over 500,000 people. She also developed drugs to treat meningitis, gout, urinary, and respiratory infections. While Elion officially retired from drug-making in 1983, she was inspired to continue working due to the then-recent outbreak of HIV/AIDS. She continued working full time until the successful release of AZT, the first drug to treat AIDS. For all of this tremendous work, which saved the lives of countless thousands, Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988. She received a National Medal of Science in 1991, and in that same year became the first woman ever inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. (Elion holds 45 patents.) She finally received an honourary Ph.D from New York University in 1989, and another doctorate from Harvard when she was 80 years old. She is recognized as one of the greatest pharmacologists and biochemists of all time.

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

Words of the Week

If you wait until you find the meaning of life, will there be enough life left to live meaningfully?

– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersonthe Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Evelyn Berezin

The Woman That Made Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Possible

Evelyn Berezin, “Godmother of the Word Processor”

Evelyn Berezin (1925-2018) was born in the Bronx to poor Russian-Jewish immigrants. Growing up, she loved reading science fiction and wished to study physics. She excelled at school and graduated two years early. Berezin had to wear make-up and fake her age to get a job at a research lab. She ended up studying economics because it was a more “fitting” subject for women at the time. During World War II, she finally received a scholarship to study physics at New York University. Berezin studied at night, while working full time at the International Printing Company during the day. She continued doing graduate work at New York University, with a fellowship from the US Atomic Energy Commission. In 1951, she joined the Electronic Computer Corporation, designing some of the world’s very first computers. At the time, computers were massive machines that could only do several specific functions. Berezin headed the Logic Design Department, and came up with a computer to manage the distribution of magazines, and to calculate firing distances for US Army artillery. In 1957, Berezin transferred to work at Teleregister, where she designed the first banking computer and the first computerized airline reservation system (linking computers in 60 cities, and never failing once in the 11 years that it ran). Her most famous feat was in 1968 when she created the world’s first personal word processor to ease the plight of secretaries (then making up 6% of the workforce). The following year, she founded her own company, Redactron Corporation, and built a mini-fridge-sized word processor, the “Data Secretary”, with a keyboard and printer, cassette tapes for memory storage, and no screen. With the ability to go back and edit text, cut and paste, and print multiple copies at once, Berezin’s computer freed the world “from the shackles of the typewriter”. The machine was an in instant hit, selling thousands of units around the world. Berezin’s word processor not only set the stage for future word processing software, like Microsoft Word, but for compact personal computers in general. It is credited with being the world’s first office computer. Not surprisingly, it has been said that without Evelyn Berezin “there would have been no Bill Gates, and no Steve Jobs”. Redactron grew to a public company with over 500 employees. As president, she was the only woman heading a corporation in the US at the time, and was described as the “Most Senior Businesswoman in the United States”. Redactron was eventually bought out by Burroughs Corporation, where Berezin worked for several more years. In 1980, she moved on to head a venture capital group investing in new technologies. Berezin served on the boards of a number of organizations, including Stony Brook University and the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and was a sought-after consultant for the world’s biggest tech companies. She was a key part of the American Women’s Economic Development Corporation for 25 years, training thousands of women in how to start businesses of their own, with a success rate of over 60%. In honour of her parents, she established the Sam and Rose Berezin Endowed Scholarship, paying tuition in full for an undergraduate science student each year. Sadly, Berezin passed away earlier this month. She left her estate to fund a new professorship or research centre at Stony Brook University. Berezin won multiple awards and honourary degrees, and was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.

Words of the Week

As much as I love, esteem, and admire the Greeks, I believe the Hebrews have done more to enlighten and civilize the world. Moses did more than all their legislators and philosophers.
– John Adams2nd president of the United States

An ad for Berezin’s new-and-improved Redactor II, typing as many as 60 letters per second!