Gertrude B. Elion
Early Life and Education
Elion was born in New York City, growing up in the Bronx. Upon finishing high school, she decided to go to Hunter College, an all-women college in New York City. Since her grandfather had died of cancer, she decided to study chemistry to "do something that might evnetually lead to a cure for this terrible disease" according to her autobiography.
The Depression affected her ability to go on to graduate school so Elion decided instead to work for a chemist as a laboratory assistant, making $20 a week. With this salary, she was eventually able to enter graduate school at New York University in 1939, the only female student in her chemistry classes. She received her Masters of Science in 1941.
WWII provided an opportunity to work in laboratories due to the shortage of chemists. She worked as an assistant to George Hitchings, where she 'transformed' from an organic chemist to a chemist specialising in microbiology and in the biological activities of the compounds and eventually virology. At the same time, she studied for her doctorate degree, attending at night the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. Although she was never able to complete her degree, she later received three honorary doctorate degrees from George Washington University, Brown University and the University of Michigan.
Elion and Hitchings began working on nucleic acid biosynthesis, a little known field at the time. 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. Elion produced drugs for herpes, leukemia, malaria, gout and immune disorders. She developed immune suppressants to overcome rejection of donated organs in transplant surgery. Her work with George Hitchings led to the development of the AIDS drug AZT.
In 1967 Elion was appointed Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy, a position which she held until her retirement in 1983. She served on a number of advisory committees and the Board of Scientific Counselors for the Division of Cancer Treatment, and was a member of the National Cancer Advisory Board, a board member of the American Association for Cancer Research, (President in 1983 - 84).
Other committees include: Advisory Committees for the American Cancer Society, the Leukemia Society of America, the Tropical Disease Research division of the World Health Organization. She was a member of the American Chemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Transplantation Society, the American Society of Biological Chemists, the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, the American Association for Cancer Research, the American Society of Hematology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, and a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences.
In 1991, Elion received a National Medal of Science, three years after receiving, with Hitchings, the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.
- Gertrude B. Elion, Biography of Gertrude B. Elion, Jewish Women Encyclopedia