Gertrude Belle Elion
Who would have expected genius from Gert?
That name so squat, dull as soap,
the face (some would say) likewise,
even the Belle couldn’t help. She never married.
Daughter of a dentist in the Bronx
admitted free to Hunter College with the other girls,
she missed the slot for nursing school,
was denied a graduate assistantship.
A lab tech’s hands thrust deep
into assays and poisons, dark steams
and cold glove boxes. An academic mind
formed microscopic military strategies
to kill the enemy, spare the civilians.
An upper-class Jewish suburban life:
opera, vacations, playing with nephews and nieces.
She never had children. Between everything
was work. She was Dr. Hitchings’ assistant.
HIV pushed back, pathogens held at bay,
liver transplants thriving. What did she see
as she dressed for work each day,
combed the curls, fastened the brooch?
Was she a role model? Was she happy?
In 1989, New York Polytechnic gave Gertrude Elion
an honorary Ph.D. It came a year
after the Nobel.