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Gene Grimley ’63 is the first to describe his life as serendipitous. He came to Olivet College by chance and later took a graduate research position by responding to a job advertisement on a bulletin board at Michigan State University (MSU). In that position, he set out on a mission for answers to a biological phenomenon without knowing what the human impact would be six years later.

Ultimately, serendipity led Gene to work on one of the most successful cancer chemotherapy drugs in history.

Path to OC

“After high school, I just didn’t know what the future held. I didn’t have the funds to go to college so I thought about joining the Navy or the Air Force,” Gene said. “At my graduation party in late June, Fred and Marianne Schuster, longtime family friends, were talking to my grandmother and mother and offered to pay for my college education if I could gain acceptance at that late date.”

Although it was already quite late, Gene was accepted to Olivet College and he didn’t waste any time settling into Blair Hall.

“My roommate was a chemistry major,” Gene said. “I used to go to Mather Hall with him, and I thought the chemicals and apparatus were neat. As a sophomore, I decided to take chemistry with Professor Fred Gruen who was working on his Ph.D. at Michigan State University. I was able to work with him as both a teaching and research assistant, and it made me very comfortable at Olivet.

“A very important part of my time with Professor Gruen was synthesizing a new compound that was included in his Ph.D. thesis. It was the first time that compound had been made and it made me feel like my work in chemistry was very interesting and worthwhile.”

A Breakthrough on the Horizon

Gene focused his own path of study on a similar track. After graduating from Olivet College in 1963, Gene pursued graduate school at MSU. It was during this time that he learned of a job listing for a chemist in the laboratory of Dr. Barnett Rosenberg in the University’s biophysics department.

The position included researching the potential impact of an electrical field on how E. coli cells divide. Through a steep and curvy journey, Gene isolated and identified a platinum compound that became the first platinum anti-cancer agent.

“Doing research is like walking across a stream in the fog. You take one stepping stone at a time, but you can’t see the next one in front of you,” Gene said. “You don’t hit home runs; you take the project slowly, step-by-step.”

Gene’s discovery amounted to cisplatin, a groundbreaking anti-cancer drug that has since saved countless lives, but approval by the Food and Drug Administration was another hurdle to overcome — and years away. Unsure of what the future would bring, Gene’s research position ended, but the experience shaped his career.

A Teacher at Heart

Grimley, left, with John Cleland, the first patient who received cisplatin for testicular cancer, at MSU’s 40-year celebration of cisplatin’s FDA approval. Cleland was completely cured of cancer over 40 years ago.

In 1965, Gene turned to his next stepping stone, a doctoral degree in inorganic chemistry from the University of Iowa, before launching his own career in higher education. He spent his first 17 years on the chemistry faculty at Mississippi State University before recently retiring from Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, as professor emeritus of chemistry. Gene spent 30 years at Elon, immeasurably contributing to the growth of the department of chemistry and the establishment of its bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biochemistry, certified by the American Chemical Society.

“I wanted to go into teaching to give back,” Gene explained. “I enjoy working with students and seeing how they light up at discovering a new concept or what they want to do in their career. It gives me great pleasure to see others become successful.

“There was one student who let an instrument go dry despite my warnings. When she admitted her mistake, she was impressed that I didn’t yell or berate her for potentially damaging the instrument. Instead, we focused on fixing the mistake and moving on together. Professors are there for guidance and options. A big part of teaching is being honest when a student is not doing well. That’s when it’s important to help them re-evaluate, be positive and attack the subject again.”

While Gene’s academic career as a professor at Mississippi State University was taking off, so was the medical application of cisplatin. Gene declined to be part of the cisplatin patent, but he is credited in the published findings by “The Journal of Biological Chemistry,” which has since been cited over 135,000 times.

In 1974, the first patient, John Cleland, was treated and cured of testicular cancer by cisplatin, with many, many more successes to come. Today, Gene says, cisplatin is still one of the most effective chemotherapeutic drugs to treat a wide variety of cancers worldwide.

“I traveled back to Michigan State University last summer to attend the 40th anniversary celebration of the FDA approval of cisplatin,” Gene said. “My wife and I revisited the very same laboratory where the initial discovery was made and this work was done. It felt like hallowed ground … knowing what was accomplished in that space.”

Learn more about Olivet College by contacting the Office of Admissions at 800-456-7189 or admissions@olivetcollege.edu.

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