Elizabeth Blackburn

Elizabeth Blackburn bigraphy, stories - Australian-born American biological researcher

Elizabeth Blackburn : biography

26 November 1948 –

{, Heineken Prize, Lasker Award, Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize, L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science (2008) Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (2009) | religion = | footnotes = }} Professor Elizabeth Helen Blackburn, AC, FRS, FAA, FRSN (born 26 November 1948) is an Australian-born American biological researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the telomere, a structure at the end of chromosomes that protects the chromosome. Blackburn co-discovered telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. Blackburn recalls: Carol had done this experiment, and we stood, just in the lab, and I remember sort of standing there, and she had this – we call it a gel. It’s an autoradiogram, because there was trace amounts of radioactivity that were used to develop an image of the separated DNA products of what turned out to be the telomerase enzyme reaction. I remember looking at it and just thinking, ‘Ah! This could be very big. This looks just right.’ It had a pattern to it. There was a regularity to it. There was something that was not just sort of garbage there, and that was really kind of coming through, even though we look back at it now, we’d say, technically, there was this, that and the other, but it was a pattern shining through, and it just had this sort of sense, ‘Ah! There’s something real here.’For this work, she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, sharing it with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak.

She also worked in medical ethics, and was controversially dismissed from the Bush Administration’s President’s Council on Bioethics.


Blackburn was appointed a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2002. She supported human embryonic cell research, in opposition to the Bush Administration. Her Council terms were terminated by White House directive on 27 February 2004. This was followed by expressions of outrage over her removal by many scientists, who maintained that she was fired because of political opposition to her advice.

"There is a growing sense that scientific research—which, after all, is defined by the quest for truth—is being manipulated for political ends," wrote Blackburn. "There is evidence that such manipulation is being achieved through the stacking of the membership of advisory bodies and through the delay and misrepresentation of their reports." Elizabeth Blackburn, N Engl J Med 350:1379–1380 (1 April 2004) By Andrew Leonard, Salon.com, 5 October 2009 Free text. Extensive quotation from Blackburn’s article.

Blackburn serves on the Science Advisory Board of the Genetics Policy Institute.


Blackburn lives in San Francisco with her husband, John W. Sedat, and has a son, Benjamin. Press release.

Early life and education

Blackburn earned her B.Sc. in 1970 and M.Sc. in 1972 from the University of Melbourne and her Ph.D. in 1975 from the University of Cambridge in England. She did her postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology from 1975 to 1977 at Yale University.

Awards and honours

  • Eli Lilly Research Award for Microbiology and Immunology (1988)
  • National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology (1990)
  • Honorary Doctorate of Science from Yale University (1991)
  • Harvey Society Lecturer at the Harvey Society in New York (1990)
  • Fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991)
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1992)
  • Fellow of American Academy of Microbiology (1993)
  • Australia Prize (1998)
  • Gairdner Foundation International Award (1998)
  • Harvey Prize (1999)
  • Keio Medical Science Prize (1999)
  • California Scientist of the Year in 1999
  • California Hall of Fame (2011)
  • American Association for Cancer Research – G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award (2000)
  • American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (2000)
  • Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000)
  • Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award (2000)
  • AACR-Pezcoller Foundation International Award for Cancer Research (2001)
  • General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Alfred P. Sloan Award (2001)
  • E.B.Wilson Award of the American Society for Cell Biology (2001)
  • Robert J. and Claire Pasarow Foundation Medical Research Award (2003)
  • Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine (2004)
  • Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Science of The Franklin Institute (2005)
  • Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2006) (shared with Carol W. Greider and Jack Szostak)
  • Genetics Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation (2006)
  • Honorary Doctorate of Science from Harvard University (2006)
  • Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences from the Wiley Foundation (shared with Carol W. Greider)(2006)
  • Fellow of Australian Academy of Science (2007)
  • Corresponding Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (2007)*Recipient of the UCSF Women’s Faculty Association Award
  • Honorary Doctorate of Science from Princeton University (2007)
  • Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (2007) (shared with Carol W. Greider and Joseph G. Gall)
  • L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science (2008)
  • (2009)
  • Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize (2009) (shared with Carol W. Greider)
  • Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (2009) (shared with Carol W. Greider and Jack Szostak)
  • Companion of the Order of Australia (Australia Day Honours, 2010), for eminent service to science as a leader in the field of biomedical research, particularly through the discovery of telomerase and its role in the development of cancer and ageing of cells and through contributions as an international adviser in Bioethics.
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales (FRSN) (2010)
  • Elected:
    • President of the American Association for Cancer Research for the year 2010
    • President of the American Society for Cell Biology for the year 1998
    • Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (1993)
    • Member of the Institute of Medicine (2000)
    • Board member of the Genetics Society of America (2000–2002)

In 2007, Blackburn was listed among Time Magazine’s The TIME 100—The People Who Shape Our World.

Work in molecular biology

In 1981, Blackburn joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, in the Department of Molecular Biology. In 1990, she moved across the San Francisco Bay to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she served as the Department Chairwoman from 1993 to 1999. Blackburn is currently the Morris Herzstein Professor of Biology and Physiology at UCSF, and a non-resident fellow of the Salk Institute. She is the president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research. In recent years Blackburn and her colleagues have been investigating the effect of stress on telomerase and telomeres with particular emphasis on mindfulness meditation. She is also one of several biologists (and one of two Nobel Prize laureates) in the 1995 science documentary Death by Design/The Life and Times of Life and Times.

Recent studies suggest that chronic psychological stress may accelerate ageing at the cellular level. Intimate partner violence was found to shorten telomere length in formerly abused women versus never abused women, possibly causing poorer overall health and greater morbidity in abused women.