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The Dark Side of Rags to Riches Stories

November 18, 2011

Gertrude Belle Elion is one of my heroes. Late 1930’s, she’s brilliant, promising, has a stellar college record in organic chemistry, but she’s a woman so no graduate fellowship for her. She couldn’t get any kind of a job in a lab either until a World War intervened. Finally actually working in a lab, she taught herself graduate level chemistry and managed to become a research chemist. She developed a new technique for creating drugs and ended up with a whole series of compounds that actually cured some forms leukemia, inhibited viruses, stopped rejection of transplants, and more. You or someone you know might be alive today because of her. Elion (aka Trudy) won a Nobel Prize, but never got a Ph.D. She died in the late 1990’s.

Hers is an inspiring story of overcoming obstacles, reaching one’s full potential, fulfilling one’s destiny. Shakespeare’s story is even more extraordinary. The son of illiterate or barely literate parents in a backwater town two day’s travel from London with no access to university-level education and no money for books becomes the greatest writer in history. The fact that he wrote about the nobility from his lowly station as a commoner makes it even better.

Even though the Shakespeare story is probably fake (the plays were most likely written by an aristocrat named Edward de Vere) we all love our rags to riches stories – a great talent manages against all odds to climb that metaphorical mountain and in so doing leaves his or her permanent mark on a world changed for the better. Wonderful.

But really you should be mad. What if Trudy hadn’t overcome the obstacles placed before her by our dominance hierarchy? Human society is still embarrassingly similar to chimpanzee society – read Chimpanzee Politics by Franz de Waal – and this is terribly costly. How many Trudys have we lost? Women are as creative as men but the female versions of Einstein, Newton, Euclid, Galileo, Shakespeare, and Picasso all lived and died anonymously, their talents never developed, their genius never flowering. And women are merely the most easily-identifiable left-out group. Most talented women and men of all races, including the poor saps unlucky enough to be born commoners in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 16th century, just get squashed.

Oh yes, one can be hopeful and say we are doing better at creating a meritocracy and allowing more people to reach their potential. There is reason for hope. But you should still be mad.

There are lots of people who don’t want you to be mad. There’s even a saying to keep you from being mad. I don’t know who invented this saying, but whoever it is deserves whatever evil befalls him. Talent will out. That’s the little saying. Maybe you even believe it. If you have the talent, it will take you places despite the obstacles.

Talent will out. Three words. Thirteen letters, two spaces, and a period. Never has a bigger mountain of utter bullshit been compressed into so small a space. We don’t so much believe it as we hope it is true. We pray it is true. We pray the Gertrude Belle Elions who can teach themselves virology (and biochemistry, pharmacology, and immunology) and discover life-saving drugs aren’t being lost to us on a daily basis. We pray if we ourselves have a talent, it will flower. But it’s more of a desperate hope than anything real. Sure, it might happen, sometimes, and you aren’t powerless when it comes to reaching your potential, but assuming that “talent will out” applies on any grand scale is just a lot of whistling in the dark. We might get there someday but we’re not there yet. Not even close.

Talent wills out about as much as I can jack up my car with my index finger.

Here’s one of my favorite stories. Daniel Golden is sitting in a room with a bunch of wealthy Harvard alums and the president of Harvard. The president talks about this accomplishment and that sports victory and whatnot and everyone claps and cheers their approval. Then he says he’s setting up a program that will allow more students who can’t pay for Harvard to get in and actually attend. Silence. A dead, embarrassing, terrible hush. No stirring. Nothing. It was an amazing moment and Golden was there for it.

The playing field is far from level. But you knew that. Did you also know the favorite saying of the haves? You do. I know you do. Talent will out. That’s what makes the status quo okay.

Golden’s book is called The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. Our educational system is overtly set up to reward the haves and let everyone else fight for scraps. The book is pretty depressing. But hey, talent will out. There’s nothing to worry about. If Shakespeare can pull himself up by his bootstraps, everything’s fine. There’s certainly no need to restructure anything. No need for any changes. All’s Well That Ends Well. Talent will out.

We’ve got Shakespeare, Elion, and let’s not forget Srinivasa Ramanujan who made himself into a great mathematician despite being born in the depths of India with virtually no resources. These stories help us sleep at night; they’re especially good for putting Harvard professors to bed. Don’t tell them Shakespeare was a front-man for the real author. “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because we said so and Mark Twain is a fool. Good night.” Harvard professors need their rest.

Ironically, the ivy league Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare people often label the opposing viewpoint as snobbery. Read the essay Hollywood Dishonors the Bard by the eminent Columbia professor James Shapiro. He says, briefly and brilliantly, “You think a commoner couldn’t have written Shakespeare? Snob!” What he meant was, “I’ve been saying talent will out my whole life. You really think I’m going to stop now?”

If only talent will out were real. Wouldn’t it be great if Shakespeares were constantly crawling out of the woodwork from all sorts of unlikely places? Give me that world. Too bad it’s nothing but an ivy league professor’s pipe-dream.

I wish it hadn’t taken a World War to get Trudy into a lab. I wish hundreds of Ramanujans weren’t being crushed by poverty every day. I wish talent really did will out. I wish Shakespeare had magically risen from the dust of Stratford. Knowing that he did no such thing reminds us all (except for Dr. Shapiro) that we must continue looking for ways to provide opportunities for all the Shakespeares of the world who don’t have access to the ivy league and who don’t have Trudy’s luck.

Regarding Dr. Shapiro and his lifetime of wishful thinking, the following quote from a personal letter written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford – the real Shakespeare – is apropos: “Truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true.”

In Measure for Measure the bard put it thus: “Nay it is ten times true; for truth is truth to the end of reckoning.”

Sadly, every Gertrude Belle Elion miracle gives the talent will out people another arrow for their quill. But the truth is, every time you hear a heart-warming talent will out story, you should be mad.

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4 Comments
  1. Bill Dillon permalink

    Re: rags to riches: A poem by Vachel Lindsey entitled The Leaden-eyed

    Let not young souls be smothered out
    Before they do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
    It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
    Its poor are ox-like, limp and leaden-eyed.

    Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly,
    Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap,
    Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve,
    Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

  2. Thank you. I agree with this so entirely. My mother, Jean, was born in the same year as Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Jean double-majored in math and physics and earned a BS summa cum laude. But she was at the University of Nebraska, whereas Ruth started in New York.

    And maybe Jean gave up too easily, when she wrote to labs about jobs and got back instructions to apply for secretarial. Jean and Ruth both married; each had a daughter in 1955. But a few years later, Ruth got into Harvard Law, overcoming many barriers erected against women.

    • Thanks for sharing your mother’s story. Sometimes it seems like there’s an infinite number of these stories, each one unique but all connected.

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