Gertrude B. Elion, M.S.

 

The following biography appears on the Academy of Achievement web site
(see also her autobiography at Nobel.org):

Gertrude Elion was born in New York City. She entered Hunter College at the age of 15 and graduated summa cum laude with a BS in chemistry in 1937, when she was only 19. In her first years after college, Elion had difficulty finding work as a chemist. There were few women working in the field, and many laboratories refused to hire women altogether. She acquired experience working in part-time and temporary jobs. While working, she earned an M.S. in chemistry from New York University. She taught high school for a few years, until the Second World War created more opportunities for women in industry.

Hired by Burroughs-Wellcome in 1944, she embarked on a 40-year scientific partnership with Dr. George Hitchings. They set themselves an unorthodox course, attempting to create new medicines by studying the chemical composition of disease cells. Within a few years, this approach had borne fruit with the development of the first two successful drugs for the treatment of acute leukemia: Purinethol and Thioguanine.

Elion's responsibilities expanded, and she began to lead larger and larger teams of her own, discovering compounds such as allopurinol, used for the treatment of gout and to relieve the side effects of chemotherapy. Her discovery of azathioprine, which suppresses the immune system's rejection of foreign tissue made kidney transplants between unrelated donors possible. More than half a million people worldwide have benefited from this discovery since 1963.

In 1967, she was named Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs-Wellcome. Over the following decade, Elion's team at Burroughs-Wellcome entered a field which pharmaceutical companies had previously shunned. They attempted to create compounds which would block viral infections. It was widely believed that any compound capable of suppressing viral activity would be hopelessly toxic. Elion's patience was rewarded with the creation of acyclovir, the world's first successful anti-viral medication. It is often used in the treatment of herpes.

Gertrude Elion officially retired in 1983, but remained active in the scientific world, as a consultant with her old firm, now known as Glaxo-Wellcome, and as an advisor to the World Health Organization and the American Association for Cancer Research. Her name appears on 45 patents.
In 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with her old colleague George Hitchings and researcher Sir James Black. She was one of only ten women to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences, and one of the very few recipients to earn a science Nobel without a doctorate. In 1991, she became the first woman to be inducted into the national Inventor's Hall of Fame, and was presented with the National Medal of Science by President George Bush.