Gertrude (“Trudy”) Belle Elion’s greatest legacy is the thousands of lives touched by the breakthrough drugs she and her associates developed for the treatment of leukemia, rejection of transplanted organs, gout, and herpes, among other disorders. Elion shared the 1988 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine in recognition of her ground-breaking work.
Gertrude Elion was born on January 23, 1918, in New York City, to Lithuanian immigrant dentist Robert and Russian immigrant Bertha (Cohen) Elion. Her father came from a long line of rabbis. Elion’s intellect manifested itself at an early age. She was a voracious reader and an excellent student, graduating from Walton High School at age fifteen, then attended Hunter College, graduating with high honors. Her childhood idols were Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie, because she admired their scientific discoveries. The death of her beloved grandfather from stomach cancer led her to choose chemistry as “a logical first step in committing myself to fighting the disease.”
Elion received her B.A. summa cum laude in 1937 but found work opportunities scarce for a woman chemist. After several unfulfilling jobs, she entered graduate school at New York University, receiving her M.S. in 1941. During this period, she also suffered the death of her fiancé and never married. The manpower shortage of World War II proved a boon for Elion, as she finally found a rewarding and challenging career in 1944 as a research chemist at Burroughs Wellcome, a noted pharmaceutical company, initially as assistant to George H. Hitchings, and later as head of experimental therapy, a post she held until her retirement in 1983. Elion began the doctoral program at Brooklyn Polytechnic but never completed a Ph.D.; she was forced to leave after two years when the college dean made her choose between her education and her job.
Gertrude Elion’s accomplishments over the course of her long career at Burroughs Wellcome were tremendous, resulting in the publication of more than 300 papers. She and her associates exploited the biochemical differences between normal cells and rapidly dividing, pathogenic cells such as cancer, bacteria, and viruses in order to develop new drugs. More specifically, purine compounds and their derivatives were used to inhibit the growth of such cells by blocking the synthesis of certain nucleic acids.
This work revolutionized the way that drugs were developed and resulted in an amazing number of breakthrough drugs, including:
- 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia
- Azathioprine (Immuran), the first minimum immunosuppressive agent used for organ transplants
- Allopurinol (Zyloprim)) for gout
- Pyrimethamine (Daraprin), for malaria
- Trimethoprim (Septra) for bacterial infections
- Acycolvir (Zovirax), for Herpes infections
In addition, the techniques developed by Elion resulted in the development of AZT for the treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Elion worked tirelessly to convey the fun and excitement of science to students of all ages, and to encourage them—especially girls—to pursue scientific careers. A warm, animated woman with a love of life, she also was an avid photographer, an adventurous traveler, and a true opera enthusiast.
Elion, Hitchings, and British chemist Sir James Black (discoverer of beta-blockers) shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment.” In spite of her ground-breaking discoveries, Gertrude Elion would not have won the Nobel Prize in 1988 without lobbying from her supporters in academic research.
In addition to the 1988 Nobel Prize and twenty honorary doctoral degrees, Elion received the Garvan Medal from the American Chemical Society (1968), the Sloan-Kettering Institute Judd Award (1983), the American Chemical Society Distinguished Chemist Award (1985), the American Association of Cancer Research Cain Award (1985), the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (1990), and the National Medal of Science (1991). She was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Pharmaceutical Scientists, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association of Cancer Research, of which she was president in 1983–1984. She also served on the boards of the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. In 1991, she was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Although she never earned a Ph.D, she received 23 honorary degrees.
Gertrude Elion died on Sunday, February 21, 1999, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she lived. “It is amazing,” Elion said, “how much you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”