Birth Date: 26 November 1948
Place of Birth: Hobart, Australia
Nationality: Australian
Occupation/Field of Study Biochemist and first Australian woman to win the Nobel Prize.


KEYWORDS: Ethics, University of Cambridge, USA, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Biochemistry, Nobel Prize, ageing process, animation, Telomerase, Australia, women in science



A specialist in telomeres (structures found at the end of chromosomes), working together with Carol W. Greider, Elizabeth Blackburn discovered the enzyme telomerase, which produces telomere DNA, which is crucial to the successful replication of chromosomes in cell division. This introduced a new field in the research of cancer and aging1.



Elizabeth H. Blackburn
© The Nobel Foundation. Photo: U. Montan

The second of seven children, Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Hobart, Australia in 1948. She obtained her BSc (1970) and her MSc (1972) degrees in Biochemistry from the University of Melbourne and moved to England, where she earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1975, analysing DNA sequences at two-time Nobel laureate, Fred Sanger’s laboratory. She started postdoctoral work on cellular biology at Joe Gall’s laboratory at Yale in 1975 on an Anna Fuller Fellowship2. The same year, Blackburn married professor of biochemistry and biophysics, John W. Sedat. The couple moved to San Francisco, California in 1977. Blackburn became associate professor at the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Among her doctoral students was Carol W. Greider, with whom Blackburn co-discovered telomerase2. In December 1986, her son Benjamin David was born. In 1990, she transferred her laboratory to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF. In 1993, Blackburn became the first woman to hold the position of Department Chair until 19992. She remained a professor at the Departments of Biochemistry and Biophysics and Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF.

Blackburn has been a member of numerous editorial boards of eminent scientific journals, such as Cell and Science, as well as president or member of more than ten scientific societies3. She is a founding member of the Rosalind Franklin Society, which promotes women’s contributions to science. A non-resident fellow of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences since 2001, she was named its President in November 2015 and took on the position in January 2016.3

Blackburn said biology, mathematics and chemistry teachers Nan Hughes, Len Stuttard, and Jenny Phipps particularly encouraged her2. During her university research, her principal mentors in directing a lab team and exemplary scientists were Frank Hird (Melbourne, Australia), Fred Sanger (Cambridge, England) and Joseph Gall (Yale, USA)2.

Her female role model in science is Barbara McClintock, who also reminded Blackburn that she should listen to her intuition when doing research2.

In 2001, under President George W. Bush, Blackburn joined the new U.S. Federal Commission, the President’s Council on Bioethics. Having publicly opposed some of the council’s recommendations on stem cell research and on therapeutic cloning, the Bush administration decided to dismiss her from the Council after two years. This decision got a considerable amount of attention from the press and Blackburn has also received many letters of support4.



Blackburn identified telomerase with her graduate student at the time, Carol W. Greider. Telomerase adds DNA to the ends of chromosomes, thus protecting them and dictating how often the cell will divide. A decrease in telomerase results in aging, cancer, diabetes and other diseases1. Blackburn continues to research telomerase in order to better understand the processes of aging and cancer5.



It never occurred to me that as a woman I wouldn’t have gone into science. I’m sure that’s just the example of having a mother who was doing some kind of career.

“Scientist of the year notable: Elizabeth Blackburn”, (2007) interviewed by Linda Marsa , Discovery Magazine, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

I understand family and career balance…and I think it can be over the years that the balance can be achieved, but not every single day necessarily. It is essential to prioritize things…

“Blackburn gets personal, reflects on the path leading up to Nobel Prize” (2009), UCSF, <> (last accessed 7 Jun. 2016).



1988: Eli Lilly Research Award for Microbiology and Immunology
1990: National Academy of Science Award in Molecular Biology “for her discovery of the nature of DNA at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes and the enzyme that is necessary to complete chromosomal replication”6
1991: Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1991: Honorary Doctorate of Science from Yale University
1992: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
1993: Member of the National Academy of Sciences
1997: Member of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB)
1998: Canada Gairdner Foundation International Award, with Carol W. Greider
1998: The Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award with Carol C. Greider “for their outstanding work on the maintenance of telomeres”7
1998: Australia Prize (Molecular Science) for “identification of an enzyme crucial to the   successful replication of chromosomes in cell division”
1998: President of the American Society for Cell Biology
1999: The Passano Foundation Award with Carol W. Greider ” for determining the molecular nature of telomeres (chromosome ends) and discovering the enzyme telomerase, which carries out the synthesis of the telomeres.”8
1999: Keio Medical Science Prize with Shinya Yoshikawa
1999: California Scientist of the Year by the California Science Center
1999: Harvey Prize (first woman) “in recognition of her pioneering discoveries and leadership in the rapidly evolving field of research on telomers, the ends of chromosomes”9
2000: Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award, with Carol W. Greider
2000: Dickson Prize in Medicine
2000: American Cancer Society Medal of Honor
2000: American Association for Cancer Research-G.H.A. Clowes Memorial Award
2000: Elected Member of the Institute of Medicine
2000: Elected Member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
2001: E.B. Wilson Award of the American Society for Cell Biology
2001: AACR-Pezcoller Foundation International Award for Cancer Research
2003: 26th Annual Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research “for seminal discoveries in the areas of cell growth, including the molecular structure of telomeres and the telomerase enzyme”10
2004: Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine for “identifying the structure of chromosome ends (telomeres) and discovering the enzyme telomerase”4
2005: Elected Member of the American Philosophical Society
2005: Kirk A. Landon-AACR prize for Basic Cancer Research
2005: Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Sciences
2006: Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research, shared with Carol W. Greider and Jack Szostak, for predicting and discovering telomerase
2006: Wiley Prize in Biomedical Sciences, shared with Carol W. Greider
2007: Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize of Columbia University, shared with Carol W. Greider and Joseph G. Gall
2007: Blackburn was listed among Time Magazine’s “The TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World”11.
2008: L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science fellowship with Carol W. Greider
2009: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
2011: Inducted into the California Hall of Fame
2012: Lila Gruber Cancer Research Award for outstanding contributions in the field of cancer research
2013: Fellow of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Academy
2015: President (first woman) of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences



Peter Badge (2007), Nobel Faces: A Gallery of Nobel Prize Winners, Weinheim, Wiley-VCH, 2007. Photographer Peter Badge aims to photograph every living Nobel Laureate and published his work in this book.

Exploring Time (2007), dir. Jonathan Gruppert, Tom Lucas, NHK, Red Hill Production Studios and Thomas Lucas Productions, television.

Killer Stress: A National Geographic Special (2008), dir. John Heminway, National Geographic Television, television.

Iswarienko, Kurt (phot.) (2010), “Rock Stars of Science”, GQ12. Phillip A. Sharp, MIT, and Elizabeth H. Blackburn, UCSF, with Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson. This picture is part of campaign that was published in GQ magazine.

Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare (2012), dirs. Susann Froemke, Matthew Heinemann, Film.

Steger, Volker (2012), Sketches of Science Artbook, Lindau, Vorarlberger Verlagsanstalt.

The photographer Volker Steger asked Nobel Laureates to draw their discoveries and took a picture with them.

Retamero Lopez, David / Jez Pennington (illus. and anim.) (2015), “All creatures great and small: Elizabeth Blackburn”, Vimeo, uploaded by Dog and Rabbit, <> (last accessed 19 Jan. 2017)

Hill, Vanessa (2016), “The Tiny Key to Ageing”, Youtube, uploaded by BrainCraft, <> (last accessed 19 Jan. 2017). Elizabeth H. Blackburn dubs her own cartoon to explain the role of telomeres in the ageing process



The following is a selection13 of her most relevant publications:

with Gall, J.G. (1978), “A tandemly repeated sequence at the termini of the extrachromosomal ribosomal RNA genes in Tetrahymena”, J. Mol. Biol., 12, 33–53.

with Greider, C.W (1985), “Identification of a specific telomere terminal transferase activity in Tetrahymena extracts”, Cell, 43, 405–13.

with Greider, C.W. (1987), “A telomeric sequence in the RNA of Tetrahymena telomerase required for telomere repeat synthesis”, Nature, 337, 331–37.

with Yu, G.L / J.D. Bradley / L.D. Attardi (1990), “In vivo alteration of telomere sequences and senescence caused by mutated Tetrahymena telomerase RNAs“, Nature, 344, 126–32.

with McEachern, M.J. (1995), “Runaway telomere elongation cause by telomerase RNA mutations”, Nature, 376, 403–09.

with Kim, M.M. / M.A. Rivera /  I.L. Botchkina / R. Shalaby / A.D. Thor (2001),  “A low threshold level of expression of mutant-template telomerase RNA is sufficient to inhibit tumor cell growth”, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 98, 7982–7987.



“Nobel Minds” (2009), Sveriges Television AB and BBC World (prods.),, <> (last accessed 2 Jun. 2016)

Brady, Catherine (2007), Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres: Deciphering the Ends of DNA, London, MIT Press.

Blackburn, Elizabeth H. (2014), “Curriculum Vitae”, UCSF, Blackburn lab. <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

“Elizabeth H. Blackburn profile” (2016), UCSF Profiles, University of California San Francisco  <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

Professor Elizabeth Blackburn (USA) (1998), Australian Government <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

“Elizabeth Blackburn” (29 Jul. 2009), Member’s profile archive, American Society for Cell Biology, <> (last accessed 7 Jun. 2016).

Blackburn, Elizabeth H. / Carol W. Greider / Jack W. Szostak, interviewed by Adam Smith (2009), <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

Madhusoodanan, Jyoti (18 Nov. 2015), “Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn Named President of Salk Institute”, University of California San Francisco,

<> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).

Links to Blackburn’s public lectures can be found on the Blackburn lab website: <>

“Stressed Cells/AARP/Camille/The Awful Truth”, 60 minutes II (2005), prod. Harry Moses, CBS, television.

“We just know so much and yet we know so little” (27 Mar. 2014), Nobel Prize Talks from, <> (last accessed 19 Jun. 2016).



  1. Nobelförsamlingen—The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute (5 Oct. 2009), Press Release, Stockholm, Nobel Media AB, webpage, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).
  2. “Elizabeth H. Blackburn – Biographical” (2014), org, Nobel Media AB, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).
  3. “CURRICULUM VITAE for ELIZABETH HELEN BLACKBURN, PH. D.” (1 May 2014), UCSF, Blackburn lab, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).
  4. “Elizabeth H. Blackburn (1948), USA”, Koninkijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).
  5. Madhusoodanan, Jyoti (18 Nov. 2015), “Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn Named President of Salk Institute”, University of California San Francisco, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).
  6. “Nas Award in Molecular Biology”, National Academy of Sciences, <> (last accessed 7 Jun. 2016).
  7. “Past winners”, Rosentiel Medical Science Research Centre, Brandeis University, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).
  8. ”The Passano Awards 1945-2015”, Passano Foundation, <> (last accessed 13 Jun. 2016).
  9. “Prize Winners”, Harvey Prize, Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, <> (last accessed 14 Jun. 2016).
  10. “Grants and awards program fact sheet” (2007), Bristol-Meyer Squibb, <> (last accessed 14 Jun. 2016).
  11. Park, Alice (3 May 2007), “Elizabeth Blackburn”, Time, <,28804,1595326_1595329_1616029,00.html> (last accessed 15 Jun. 2016).
  12. Mihelich, Pegy (2010), “AAAS Members Rock GQ Magazine”, AAS <> (last accessed 14 Jun. 2016).
  13. “Telomerase and its implication for aging and cancer”, Laskar Award, Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, <> (last accessed 7 Jun. 2016).
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