Professor Elizabeth Blackburn

Born 26 November 1948, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


  • Broadland House Girls Grammar School in Launceston.
  • University High School. (Completed secondary education)
  • University of Melbourne: B.Sc. (Hon) – Biochemistry
  • University of Melbourne: M.Sc (1972) - Biochemistry
  • University of Cambridge: Ph.D. (1975) – Molecular Biology
  • Yale University: Postdoc (1975-77) – Molecular & Cell Biology

Nobel Prize motivation

for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase

“My parents were both family physicians. From them I imbibed a sense of the importance of serving people kindly and as well as one can. I continue to believe that bioethics, done well and underpinned by the best available scientific evidence, can be an important part of our consideration, as a society, of the impact on people of scientific research in the biological sciences and medicine”.

The Elizabeth Blackburn School of Sciences is named in honour of an inspirational Australian who became Australia’s first female and 11th Nobel laureate in 2009 in recognition of her achievements in physiology or medicine. Professor Blackburn symbolises the strength of partnership between The University High School where she completed her schooling, topping the state in three matriculation subjects (prerequisite for entry into universities) and The University of Melbourne where she completed her biochemistry masters. Professor Blackburn’s achievement‘s in the field of science embodies the commitment, dedication and natural talent we at UHS want to enhance and nurture in all our students.

Introduction and Humble Beginning

Professor Blackburn was born in Hobart, Tasmania (Australia) on November 26, 1948. Her parents, Drs. Harold and Marcia (Jack) Blackburn, were physicians, and she quickly developed a love of science.

Higher Education

She completed her secondary school at The University High School and then started at The University of Melbourne. There she completed her undergraduate studies, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1970. She continued at Melbourne and received her Master of Science degree in 1971. Professor Blackburn went on to Cambridge University in England, where she earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology in 1975. She developed her doctoral thesis on sequencing of nuclear acids.

It was not long until Professor Blackburn moved to the United States, to Yale University, where she studied chromosomes-their structures and replication-on a research fellowship. It was during those years that she first began to explore the phenomenon of telomeres, the tiny structures that cap the ends of chromosomes and which contribute to the stability of the gene cells. In 1977 Professor Blackburn moved to California, to continue her research into the nature of the telomere projections of chromosomes. She worked, as a research fellow, at the University of California (UCSF).

By that time she had travelled halfway around the world in pursuit of her educational goals. In 1978 she accepted her first position, as an assistant professor at the University of California in Berkeley. It was here that Professor Blackburn continued her work and research on the behaviour of the telomere. Eventually she noticed a relationship between telomere size and the ability of a chromosome to divide and duplicate.

In 1985, she and her graduate assistant, Carol W. Greider, successfully isolated "telomerase." Telomerase is the enzyme that synthesizes new telomeres in DNA and controls the length of the telomeres. The discovery was a breakthrough for biologists everywhere, specifically with cancer and genetic research. This discovery brought international acclaim to Professor Blackburn and subsequently opened up new opportunities to lead and promote the field of sciences. Professor Blackburn has been honoured by her peers as the recipient of many prestigious awards (see below).

Personal Achievements

Elizabeth Blackburn is a scientist, a teacher, a wife, and a mother. She met her husband, John Sedat, in England. They were married in 1975 and are the proud parents of their son, Benjamin, born in 1986. Blackburn takes motherhood very seriously, and publicly attests to the importance of time spent with her family. Professor Blackburn has been a strong supporter and advocate for women combining the pleasures of family life and the passion for a career in science. This shone through in one of her many articles where she upheld the right of every woman to choose a career without fear of discrimination for embracing motherhood. Blackburn commented, "It makes no sense that career avenues be closed to a woman because of a temporary situation (the responsibilities of mothering young children”. Professor Blackburn further discussed (in her article) the most memorable week of her life, which occurred at age 37 when she received her full professorship at UCSF and discovered in the same week that she was about to become a mother.

Professor Blackburn continues with her research today and, as others have guided her, she serves as mentors to another generation of research scientists, men and women who will continue their work for years to come.

Some of Professor Blackburn’s prestigious awards honours and recognitions include

  • Australian Society for Microbiology Prize (1967)
  • University of Melbourne Wyselaskie Scholar (1970)
  • Australia Prize (1998)An international prize for scientific research (in 2000 it was replaced by the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science )
  • The Gairdner Foundation International Award(1998) is given annually to three to six people for outstanding discoveries or contributions to medical science
  • Fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000) The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is an international non-profit organization with the stated goals of promoting cooperation among scientists, defending scientific freedom, encouraging scientific responsibility, and supporting scientific education and science outreach for the betterment of all humanity.
  • AACR-Pezcoller Foundation International Award for Cancer Research (2001)
  • Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2006) This is one of the prizes for the understanding, diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and cure of disease.
  • Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (2007)
  • L'Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science (2008) The L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science aims to improve the position of women in science by recognizing outstanding women researchers who have contributed to scientific progress. Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (2009)
  • The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is awarded once a year for outstanding discoveries in the field of life, science and medicine.
  • 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 (2010)
  • In 2007, Dr Blackburn was listed among Time Magazine's TIME 100—The People Who Shape Our World.

Reference Website

Link to Elizabeth H. Blackburn - Nobel Laureate Facts