George H. Hitchings was an American doctor who was one of the co-recipients of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He was renowned for his medical research, especially his groundbreaking work on chemotherapy. His works paved the way for the development of life-saving drugs to treat diseases like leukemia, gout, and disorders of the human immunity system. Born into a loving family in Washington, he enjoyed a happy childhood for a few years before his father was stricken with an incurable illness. After a prolonged battle for his life, he died when George was just 12 years old. The illness and untimely death of his father had a profound impact on the young boy and he decided to become a doctor on growing up. Intelligent and determined, he made his way into the University of Washington as a premedical student in 1923. He found the intellectual atmosphere of the university very stimulating and graduated with a degree in chemistry. After completing his master’s degree, he proceeded to the Harvard University and earned his doctorate. Years later while working for Wellcome Research Laboratories he collaborated with Gertrude Elion and the duo began their work on drug therapies for malaria, leukemia, gout, organ transplantation and bacterial infections. Their extraordinary work earned the pair the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Childhood & Early Life
George Herbert Hitchings was born on April 18, 1905, in Hoquiam, Washington, to George Herbert Hitchings, Sr., a marine architect and shipbuilder, and his wife Lillian Matthews.
Both his parents loved to read, a trait that he too inherited. He enjoyed a happy childhood until his father became ill and died after a prolonged illness when George was just 12. This tragic childhood experience kindled in George an interest in medical research.
He performed well as a student and graduated from Seattle's Franklin High School as salutatorian in 1923 and went to the University of Washington as a premedical student. He graduated with a degree in chemistry cum laude in 1927 and spent the summer working at the Puget Sound Biological Station at Friday Harbor, Washington.
He earned his master’s degree in 1928 with a thesis based on the work he did at the Puget Sound Biological Station.
He was then offered fellowships for further graduate work at the Mayo Foundation and at Harvard; he chose the latter. He spent one year as a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry at Cambridge following which he was accepted as a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Biological Chemistry at Harvard Medical School. He earned his Ph.D. in 1933.
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His career began in the middle of the Great Depression. The initial years of his career were difficult as he was unable to get a stable well-paying position. He held temporary appointments at the C.P. Huntington Laboratories of Harvard in cancer research, at the Harvard School of Public Health in nutrition research, and at Western Reserve University.
The year 1942 marked the actual beginning of his productive career. He joined the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Tuckahoe, New York, as head of the Biochemistry Department. This position offered him considerable freedom to develop his own program of research.
Gertrude Elion—his future collaborator—joined in 1944. Hitchings, along with Elion and other members of his staff, began researching on drugs, developing compounds for specific diseases and testing them on animals. Their research led to new insights on a variety of diseases affecting immunity.
In the mid-1940s Hitchings’ team began an important project on antiviral work in collaboration with Randall L. Thompson at Western Reserve. The scientists focused on vaccinia virus which shed light on the process of effective curative chemotherapy of viral infections.
The major drugs his team worked on included 2, 6-diaminopurine (a compound to treat leukemia) and p-chlorophenoxy-2, 4-diaminopyrimidine (a folic acid antagonist).
In the late 1940s Hitchings’ team became associated with the Sloan Kettering Institute which provided financial support to the team to aid in their search for antitumor agents.
In 1967, Hitchings became Vice President in Charge of Research of Burroughs Wellcome. He also served as Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and of Experimental Medicine from 1970 to 1985 at Duke University. In 1976 he became Scientist Emeritus at Burroughs Wellcome Co.
George H. Hitchings was a pioneer in the field of chemotherapy. Working with his team, he focused on vaccinia virus and produced some active compounds that paved the way to the development of effective curative chemotherapy which would hinder the fast multiplication of cancer cells in the body.
He was deeply interested in philanthropic activities and became the Director of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund in 1968 and its President in 1971. The Fund is a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the support of biomedical research, especially in clinical pharmacology and innovative methods in drug design.
He founded what is now the Greater Triangle Community Foundation in 1983, and served as its director for life.
Awards & Achievements
In 1968, he was given the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his contributions to medical science.
Hitchings was awarded the Passano award by the Passano Foundation in 1969.
In 1988, George H. Hitchings, Sir James W. Black and Gertrude B. Elion were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment."
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1933, he married Beverly Reimer, an artistic and intelligent young woman. The couple had two children. His wife died in 1985 after more than 50 years of marriage. His second marriage was to Joyce Shaver.
He suffered from Alzheimer's disease during his later years and died on February 27, 1998.