Gertrude B. Elion
|Gertrude B. Elion|
|Born||Gertrude Belle Elion
January 23, 1918
New York City, United States
|Died||February 21, 1999
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
|Alma mater||Hunter College|
|Notable awards||Garvan-Olin Medal (1968)
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1988)
National Medal of Science (1991)
Lemelson-MIT Prize (1997)
National Inventors Hall of Fame (1991)
(first woman to be inducted)
Gertrude Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, and a 1988 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Working alone as well as with George H. Hitchings, Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT.
Elion was born in New York City, to immigrant parents Bertha (Cohen) and Robert Elion, a dentist. When she was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, instilling in her a desire to do all she could to try and cure the disease. She graduated from Hunter College in 1937 with a degree in Chemistry and New York University (M.Sc.) in 1941. Unable to obtain a graduate research position, she worked as a lab assistant and a high school teacher. When World War II broke out, there was an urgent need for women at scientific laboratories so she left to work as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company (now GlaxoSmithKline). After several years of long range commuting, she was informed that she would no longer be able to continue her doctorate on a part-time basis, but would need to give up her job and go to school full-time. Elion made what was then a critical decision in her life, to stay with her job and give up the pursuit of a doctorate. She never obtained a formal Ph.D., but was later awarded an honorary Ph.D from Polytechnic University of New York in 1989 and honorary SD degree from Harvard university in 1998. She attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now known as Polytechnic University of New York) but did not graduate. Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina in 1999, aged 81. She had moved to the Research Triangle in 1970, and for a time served as a research professor at Duke University. She had also worked for the National Cancer Institute, American Association for Cancer Research and World Health Organization, among other organizations. From 1967 to 1983, she was the Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy for Burroughs Wellcome. Elion never married, had no children, and listed her hobby as 'listening to music'.
Rather than relying on trial-and-error, Elion and Hitchings used the differences in biochemistry between normal human cells and pathogens (disease-causing agents) to design drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of particular pathogens without harming the host cells. Most of Elion's early work came from the use and development of purines. Elion's inventions include:
- 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia and used in organ transplantation.
- Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.
- Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.
- Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.
- Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.
- Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.
- Nelarabine for cancer treatment.
During 1967 she occupied the position of the head of the company’s Department of Experimental Therapy and officially retired in 1983. Despite her retirement, Elion continued working almost full-time at the lab, and oversaw the adaptation of azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug used for treatment of AIDS.
Awards and honors
In 1988 Elion received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, together with Hitchings and Sir James Black. After receiving the Nobel Prize she once said:
“People ask me often (was) the Nobel Prize the thing you were aiming for all your life? And I say that would be crazy. Nobody would aim for a Nobel Prize because, if you didn’t get it, your whole life would be wasted. What we were aiming at was getting people well, and the satisfaction of that is much greater than any prize you can get.”
She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1990, a member of the Institute of Medicine in 1991 and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also in 1991. Other awards include the National Medal of Science (1991), Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997), and the Garvan-Olin Medal (1968). In 1991 she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
In Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, there is a chapter devoted to her.
- “Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t.” 
- "I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much."
- "The idea was to do research, find new avenues to conquer, new mountains to climb."
- Avery, Mary Ellen (2008). "Gertrude Belle Elion. 23 January 1918 -- 21 February 1999". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 54: 161–168. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2007.0051.
- Holloway, M. (1991) Profile: Gertrude Belle Elion – The Satisfaction of Delayed Gratification, Scientific American 265(4), 40–44.
- Bertha and Gertrude Elion | Jewish Women's Archive. Jwa.org. Retrieved on May 12, 2014.
- Elion, Gertrude. "Les Prix Nobel". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved February 21, 2014.
- "Gertrude Elion - Biography, Facts and Pictures". Famous Scientists: The Art of Genius. 2014. Retrieved 15 December 2014.
- Staff (1988). "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988: Sir James W. Black, Gertrude B. Elion, George H. Hitchings". Nobelprize.org. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- Marx, Vivien (2005). "6-Mercaptopurine". Chemical & Engineering News. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- "Gertrude B. Elion". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
- "Directory: IOM Member - Gertrude B. Elion, M.S.". Institute of Medicine. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
- "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter E" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
- Staff. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details: GERTRUDE B. ELION". National Science Foundation. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- Staff. "Invent Now: Hall of Fame: Gertrude Belle Elion". National Inventors Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- Staff (March 6, 1991). "Gertrude B. Elion: Interview (page: 5/7)". Academy of Achievement. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
- Chast, François (1970–80). "Elion, Gertrude Belle". Dictionary of Scientific Biography 20. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 373–377. ISBN 978-0-684-10114-9.
- McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (1998). "Gertrude Elion". Nobel Prize Women in Science. Carol Publishing Group. pp. 280–303.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gertrude Elion.|
- Autobiography at the Nobel e-Museum
- Biographical Memoirs by Mary Ellen Avery
- Women of Valor exhibit on Gertrude Elion at the Jewish Women's Archive
- New York Times obituary
- Gertrude B. Elion, Biography of Gertrude B. Elion, Jewish Women Encyclopedia