Gertrude B. Elion was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, who, along with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black, won the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The trio developed several new drugs that went on to benefit millions of people around the world. Born to Lithuanian immigrant parents in New York City, Gertrude B. Elion developed an interest in medical science after witnessing her grandfather struggle with cancer. Following his painful death, the young girl was determined to try to find a cure for the life-threatening disorder. She went to Hunter College and graduated with a degree in chemistry following which she proceeded to the New York University to study for her master’s degree. She was deeply interested in a career in research, but being a woman she was not able to obtain the research position she so desperately sought. She worked in a series of other jobs before joining the Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories where she became an assistant to Hitchings, beginning a collaboration that would last four decades. Working together, the duo developed several new drugs to treat life-threatening diseases like leukemia, autoimmune disorders, urinary-tract infections, gout, malaria, and viral herpes. She officially retired in 1983 but continued being active in research for long afterwards.
Childhood & Early Life
Gertrude Belle Elion was born on January 23, 1918, in New York City, United States, to Bertha (Cohen) and Robert Elion. Her father was a dentist and she had one brother.
A bright and curious girl, she had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and loved all the subjects in school. When she was 15, her beloved grandfather died of cancer. Watching him die from the dreadful disease motivated her to do something that might eventually lead to a cure for the disease.
In the early 1930s, the western world was still reeling under the aftereffects of the Great Depression and since her family was not financially sound, she wondered if she would be able to pursue a higher education. She was fortunately able to secure a place in the Hunter College, which was a free one.
She graduated in 1937 with a degree in Chemistry. She worked as a laboratory assistant for a chemist for some time before entering graduate school at New York University in the fall of 1939. She was the only lady in her class.
While working towards her master’s degree she also worked as a teacher of chemistry, physics and general science. She obtained her Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1941.
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The World War II was going on when she graduated. She wanted to get into research but was not able to obtain the position she desired. Instead, she did analytical quality control work for a major food company. She did not find any satisfaction in this job and began searching for a new one.
She was appointed at the Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories as an assistant to George Hitchings. She enjoyed her time at the laboratory as Hitchings gave her considerable freedom in her research, allowing her to learn as rapidly as she wanted to.
Working with Hitchings, she moved from being solely an organic chemist to become involved in microbiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and immunology. During this time, she also attended night school at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute with the intent of pursuing a doctorate. However, she dropped her Ph.D. plans due to increasing work pressure.
Her professional career proved to be a highly successful one. In collaboration with Hitchings, she developed various new drugs to treat diseases like leukemia, autoimmune disorders, urinary-tract infections, gout, malaria, and viral herpes.
The duo adopted innovative research methods and focused on examining the difference between the biochemistry of normal human cells and those of cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. Then they used this information to formulate effective drugs to treat the diseases caused by such pathogens.
In 1967, she was appointed Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs Wellcome, a position she held until she retired in 1983. She moved to the Research Triangle in 1970.
Throughout her career she was associated with the National Cancer Institute in many capacities. She had also worked for American Association for Cancer Research and World Health Organization, among other organizations.
From 1971 to 1983, she served as Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and of Experimental Medicine at Duke University. She was the Research Professor from 1983 to 1999.
Elion developed a multitude of new drugs in her career which includes 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia and used in organ transplantation. Some of the other drugs she invented were Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, and Nelarabine, which is used for cancer treatment.
Awards & Achievements
Gertrude B. Elion, Sir James W. Black and George H. Hitchings were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988 "for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment".
She is also the recipient of several other prestigious awards including the National Medal of Science (1991) and Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997).
In 1991, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, becoming the first woman to achieve this honor.
Personal Life & Legacy
Gertrude B. Elion never married nor had children. She remained close to her brother and his family till the very end. Despite her hectic career, she still found time for hobbies like photography and travelling.
She died on February 21, 1999, at the age of 81.