Tag Archives: National Inventors Hall of Fame

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

Jews of the Week: Lederman and Ashkin

Two 96-Year Old Nobel Prize Winners

Leon Lederman in 1988

Leon Max Lederman (1922-2018) was born in New York to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants. After serving in World War II, he returned to work on a PhD in physics at Columbia University. He would become a distinguished physics professor there before taking a leave to join the world-renowned CERN in Switzerland. There, he discovered the muon neutrino in 1962. For this, as well as developing the “neutrino beam method”, he would later win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Lederman also discovered the bottom quark. In 1979, Lederman became the director of the prestigious Fermilab, running the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. After retiring in 1989, he was an occasional teacher at the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1993 he published his bestselling book, The God Particle (coining that now-famous term). Lederman won countless awards and inspired a generation of physicists. Sadly, he was diagnosed with dementia, and the illness took a toll on both his health and his finances. He was forced to sell his Nobel Prize gold medal in order to pay for his medical bills. He passed away last week, at age 96.

Arthur Ashkin

Another 96-year old Jewish scientist who made headlines last week is Arthur Ashkin (b. 1922). He won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of optical tweezers. Like Lederman, Ashkin was born in New York to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, and also attended Columbia University. During World War II, he was asked to stay in his lab to build magnetrons for US Army radars. After earning his PhD in nuclear physics at Cornell, Ashkin was hired by Bell Labs. He first worked on microwave technology, then moved on to lasers. After some two decades of work, Ashkin created a working optical tweezer, described as “an old dream of science fiction”. This allows tiny things like atoms, viruses, and cells to be grabbed, moved and manipulated. Today, it is an indispensable tool for countless research facilities around the world. Ashkin also co-discovered the photorefractive effect, and holds a whopping 47 patents. In addition to his many awards, he has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His Nobel at age 96 makes him the oldest person ever to win the prize.

Words of the Week

An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that, in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle.
– Francis Crick, Nobel Prize-winning biologist

Jew of the Week: Dean Kamen

Inventor of the Segway

Dean Kamen on a Segway

Dean Kamen on a Segway

Dean Kamen (b. 1951) was born in New York, the son of famous illustrator Jack Kamen. He dropped out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute to focus on his career as an inventor and entrepreneur. His first big success was inventing a wearable drug infusion pump, after which he started his first company AutoSyringe. Following this, he worked on portable kidney dialysis machines, robotic arms, insulin pumps, the Stirling engine, water purification systems, as well as solar power and off-grid electricity in the hopes of raising the standard of life in developing countries. Among his more interesting inventions are an all-terrain wheelchair, and a device that launches people into the air, used by law enforcement agents and emergency workers to get to the top of tall or inaccessible rooftops and buildings. Above all though, his most well-known invention is undoubtedly the Segway – the cool, self-balancing, two-wheeled personal transporter. Though it has yet to catch-on among the public, it was once thought to be an invention “more important than the internet”, and Steve Jobs said it was “as big a deal as the PC”. Meanwhile, Kamen founded an organization called FIRST, aimed at inspiring students to enter technology and engineering programs. The organization provides over $15 million in scholarships. It also runs the famous FIRST Robotics Competition, now held in some 60 locations around the world, with over one million students having participated over the years. All in all, Kamen holds over 440 patents. He has already been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and has won a great number of awards and honourary degrees, including the National Medal of Technology, and the UN’s Global Humanitarian Action Award. In 2010, he also starred in the TV show Dean of Invention. Kamen is a hobbyist pilot, and owns a collection of jet aircraft and helicopters, which he usually flies to work.

Words of the Week

He was this little guy David, and he had this really big problem, Goliath, and he took him out because he had a little piece of technology, and I thought, “Wow, technology is cool.”
Dean Kamen, on being inspired by the Biblical story of David and Goliath