Friday Jan. 23, 2015

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When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow
For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

“Music” by Anne Porter, from Living Things. © Zoland Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1849 that Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree. Blackwell was born in England but moved to America as a young girl. She became a teacher to support her family, but she wished for more challenging and meaningful work. One day, she was sitting with a dying friend, who admitted that she thought her disease would have been more manageable if a female doctor had attended her. Blackwell was inspired, and set out to become a doctor. Even the most radical physicians discouraged her from applying. One progressive Quaker wrote to her: “Elizabeth, it is of no use trying. Thee cannot gain admission to these schools. Thee must go to Paris and don masculine attire to gain the necessary knowledge.” She applied anyway, and was turned down by every school but one: Geneva Medical College in Geneva, New York. The school’s faculty opposed letting her attend, but they decided to put the idea to the student body, who thought it was a good joke and voted unanimously to admit her. They were shocked when she actually showed up on campus.

Although her fellow students were relatively civil, the community at large treated Blackwell badly. None of the doctors’ wives would talk to her, and neither would most of the townspeople, who thought she was a bad influence on their children. At graduation, the faculty dean praised her in his speech, but his praise elicited angry letters to the New England Journal of Medicine demanding that no medical school ever again admit a woman. Blackwell left America to pursue graduate studies in Europe. Eventually, she returned to open a hospital for women in New York City, which not only offered medical services for poor women and children, but also provided a place for women to receive medical training and work as doctors and physicians.

She wrote many books and pamphlets, including her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women (1895). She said: “It is not easy to be a pioneer — but oh, it is fascinating! I would not trade one moment, even the worst moment, for all the riches in the world.”

It’s the birthday of biochemist and pharmacologist Gertrude B. Elion, born in New York City (1918). After her grandfather died of cancer, she decided to become a cancer researcher. She entered Hunter College when she was just 15 years old, and graduated with a chemistry degree four years later. Elion wanted to work in a lab, but those jobs were for men only. One lab refused her with the explanation that her physical attractiveness would be a distraction to her male colleagues. She said later, “Maybe I was young and ‘cute’ (after all, I was only 20 then), but I’ve learned over the years that when you put white lab coats on chemists, they all look alike.” Eventually, she found an unpaid job working as a lab assistant.

When World War II broke out, there was a sudden shortage of chemists, and she found a job at a pharmaceutical company as an assistant to Dr. George Hitchings. He was so impressed that he gave Elion more latitude than most assistants, and their collaboration lasted 40 years. She said, “Each series of studies was like a mystery story in that we were constantly trying to deduce what the microbiological results meant.”

Elion and Hitchings pioneered a new method of developing drugs, leaving behind the accepted trial-and-error method, and instead designing molecules with specific structures for use in pharmaceuticals. This method is now called “rational drug design.” They designed compounds to block viral infections by interrupting cell growth. They developed drugs to treat leukemia, herpes, gout, and malaria. Elion’s work and methods eventually led her colleagues to develop the AIDS drug AZT.

Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1988. She said, “The Nobel Prize is fine, but the drugs I’ve developed are rewards in themselves.”

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