Gertrude B. Elion

Gertrude Elion
Born Gertrude Belle Elion
(1918-01-23)January 23, 1918
New York City, United States
Died February 21, 1999(1999-02-21) (aged 81)
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
Citizenship United States
Alma mater Hunter College
New York University
Scientific career

Gertrude Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black. Working alone as well as with Hitchings and Black, Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT. She developed the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, used for organ transplants. She also developed the first successful antiviral drug, acyclovir (ACV), for the treatment of Herpes infection.[2]

Early life and education

Elion was born in New York City on January 23, 1918,[1] to parents Robert Elion, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant and a dentist, and Bertha Cohen, a Polish immigrant. Her family lost their wealth after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.[3](p64) 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.[4][5] She graduated from Hunter College in 1937 with a degree in chemistry[6] and New York University (M.Sc.) in 1941, while working as a high school teacher during day time. Her fifteen fellowship applications were turned down due to gender bias at the time, so she enrolled in a secretarial school, which lasted six weeks before she found a job.[3](p65)

Unable to obtain a graduate research position, she worked as a food quality supervisor at A&P supermarkets,[3](p65) and for a food lab in New York, testing the acidity of pickles and the color of egg yolk going into mayonnaise. Later, she left to work as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company in Tuckahoe, New York (now GlaxoSmithKline).[7][8][9][10][11][12] Hitchings was using a new way of developing drugs, by imitating natural compounds instead of through trial and error. He believed that if he could trick cancer cells into accepting artificial compounds for growth, they could be destroyed without also destroying normal cells.[3](p65) She began to work with purines, and in 1950, she developed the anti-cancer drugs tioguanine and 6-MP.[3](p66)

She began to go to night school at New York University Tandon School of Engineering (then Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute), but 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.[6] She never obtained a formal Ph.D.,[13] but was later awarded an honorary Ph.D from New York University Tandon School of Engineering (then Polytechnic University of New York) in 1989 and honorary SD degree from Harvard university in 1998.

Career and research

Elion 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.

She was affiliated with Duke University as Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and of Experimental Medicine from 1971 to 1983 and Research Professor from 1983 to 1999.[14]

Rather than relying on trial-and-error, Elion and Hitchings used the differences in biochemistry between normal human cells and pathogens (disease-causing agents such as cancer cells, protozoa, bacteria, and viruses) to design drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of particular pathogens without harming the host cells. The drugs they developed are used to treat a variety of maladies, such as leukemia, malaria, organ transplant rejection (azathioprine), as well as herpes (acyclovir, which was the first selective and effective drug of its kind).[15] Most of Elion's early work came from the use and development of purines. Elion's inventions include:

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.[18][19][20]

Awards and honors

In 1988 Elion received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Hitchings and Sir James Black for discoveries of "important new principles of drug treatment".[21] She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1990,[22] a member of the Institute of Medicine in 1991[23] and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also in 1991.[24]

Awards include the Garvan-Olin Medal (1968),[25] the National Medal of Science (1991),[26] and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997).[27] In 1991 Elion became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[28] In 1992, she was elected to the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame.[29] She was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1995.[1]

Personal life

Soon after graduating from Hunter College, Elion met Leonard Canter, an outstanding statistics student at City College of New York (CCNY). They planned to marry, but Leonard became ill. On June 25, 1941 he died from bacterial endocarditis, an infection of his heart valves.[30]

Elion never married or had children.[3](p65) She listed her hobbies as photography, travel and listening to music.[31] After Burroughs Wellcome moved to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Elion moved to nearby Chapel Hill. Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina in 1999, aged 81.[3](p76)


  1. 1 2 3 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.
  2. Kresge, Nicole; Simoni, Robert D.; Hill, Robert L. (May 9, 2008). "Developing the Purine Nucleoside Analogue Acyclovir: the Work of Gertrude B. Elion". J. Biol. Chem. 283 (19): e11. Retrieved 25 January 2018.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Stille, Darlene R. (1995). Extraordinary Women Scientists. Childrens Press.
  4. Larsen, Kristine. "Gertrude Elion 1918 – 1999". Jewish Women's Archive Encyclopedia. Retrieved 1 November 2016.
  5. Bertha and Gertrude Elion | Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved on May 12, 2014.
  6. 1 2 Elion, Gertrude. "Les Prix Nobel". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved February 21, 2014.
  7. Autobiography of Elion at
  8. Biographical Memoirs of Elion by Mary Ellen Avery
  9. Women of Valor exhibit on Gertrude Elion at the Jewish Women's Archive
  10. Lawrence K Altman for the New York Times. February 23, 1999 Gertrude Elion, Drug Developer, Dies at 81
  11. Gertrude B. Elion, Biography of Gertrude B. Elion, Jewish Women Encyclopedia
  12. Katherine Bouton for the New York Times. January 29, 1989 The Nobel Pair
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion". Science History Institute. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
  14. Wayne, Tiffany K. American Women of Science Since 1900: Essays A-H. Vol.1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 370. ISBN 1598841580.
  15. Wasserman, Elga R. (2000). The door in the dream : conversations with eminent women in science. Joseph Henry Press. p. 47. ISBN 0-309-06568-2.
  16. Marx, Vivien (2005). "6-Mercaptopurine". Chemical & Engineering News. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  17. Koenig, R. (1 October 2006). "The Legacy of Great Science: The Work of Nobel Laureate Gertrude Elion Lives On". The Oncologist. 11 (9): 961–965. doi:10.1634/theoncologist.11-9-961. PMID 17030634. Retrieved 1 November 2016.
  18. Holloway, M (1991). "Profile: Gertrude Belle Elion – The Satisfaction of Delayed Gratification". Scientific American. 265 (4): 40–44. Bibcode:1991SciAm.265b..40B. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0891-40. PMID 1745899.
  19. 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.
  20. McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (1998). "Gertrude Elion". Nobel Prize Women in Science. Carol Publishing Group. pp. 280–303.
  21. Wasserman, Elga R. The door in the dream : conversations with eminent women in science. Joseph Henry Press. p. 46. ISBN 0-309-06568-2.
  22. "Gertrude B. Elion". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  23. "Directory: IOM Member - Gertrude B. Elion, M.S." Institute of Medicine. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  24. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter E" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  25. "Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal". American Chemical Society. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  26. Staff. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details: GERTRUDE B. ELION". National Science Foundation. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  27. "$100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award Winners" (PDF). MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW CUSTOM + LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  28. Staff. "Invent Now: Hall of Fame: Gertrude Belle Elion". National Inventors Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on September 1, 2012. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  29. Wasserman, Elga R. (2000). The door in the dream : conversations with eminent women in science. Joseph Henry Press. p. 49. ISBN 0-309-06568-2.
  30. McDowell, Julie L. (2002). "A lifetime quest for a cure" (PDF). Modern Drug Discovery. American Chemical Society (October): 51–52. Retrieved 14 February 2018.
  31. Staff (1988). "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988: Sir James W. Black, Gertrude B. Elion, George H. Hitchings". Retrieved October 20, 2012.

Further reading

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