Gertrude B. Elion

Gertrude "Trudy"[2] 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 for their use of innovative methods of rational drug design for the development of new drugs. This new method focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than simply using trial-and-error. Her work led to the creation of the AIDS drug AZT. Her well known works also include the development of the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, used to fight rejection in organ transplants, and the first successful antiviral drug, acyclovir (ACV), used in the treatment of herpes infection.[3]

Gertrude Elion
Gertrude Belle Elion

(1918-01-23)January 23, 1918
DiedFebruary 21, 1999(1999-02-21) (aged 81)
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materHunter College
New York University
Scientific career

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.[4](p64) Elion was an excellent student who graduated from Walton High School at the age of 15.[2] When she was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, instilling in her a desire to do all she could to try to cure the disease.[5][6][7] She was Phi Beta Kappa[8] at Hunter College, which she was able to attend for free due to her grades, graduating summa cum laude in 1937 with a degree in chemistry.[2][9] She earned her M.Sc. from New York University in 1941, while working as a high school teacher during the day time. In an interview after receiving her Nobel Prize, she stated that she believed the sole reason she was able to further her education as a young female was because she was able to attend Hunter College for free.[10] Her fifteen financial aid applications for graduate school were turned down due to gender bias, so she enrolled in a secretarial school, where she attended only six weeks before she found a job.[4](p65)

Unable to obtain a graduate research position, she worked as a food quality supervisor at A&P supermarkets[4](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 (now GlaxoSmithKline) in Tuckahoe, New York.[11][12][13][14][15][16] Hitchings was using a new way of developing drugs, by intentionally imitating natural compounds instead of through trial and error. He believed that if he could trick cancer cells into accepting artificial compounds for their growth, they could be destroyed without also destroying normal cells.[4](p65) She began to work with purines, and in 1950, she developed the anti-cancer drugs tioguanine and mercaptopurine.[4](p66)

She pursued graduate studies at 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 a critical decision in her life, and stayed with her job and give up the pursuit of her doctorate.[9] She never obtained a formal Ph.D.,[17] 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 an honorary S.D. degree from Harvard University in 1998.

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.[18] In her Nobel interview, she stated that this furthered her drive to become a research scientist and pharmacologist.

Elion never married or had children.[4](p65) However, her brother, whom she was close with, married and had two sons and a daughter that she took pride in being able to watch grow. She listed her hobbies as photography, travel and listening to music.[19] 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.[4](p76)

Career and research

While Elion had many jobs to support herself and put herself through school, 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.[20]

Rather than relying on trial-and-error, Elion and Hitchings discovered new drugs using rational drug design, which used the differences in biochemistry and metabolism 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 human cells. The drugs they developed are used to treat a variety of maladies, such as leukemia, malaria, lupus, hepatitis, arthritis, gout,[21] organ transplant rejection (azathioprine), as well as herpes (acyclovir, which was the first selective and effective drug of its kind).[22] Most of Elion's early work came from the use and development of purine derivatives. Elion's inventions include:

In 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.[25][26][27]

Selected works by Gertrude B. Elion

  • “Interaction of Anticancer Drugs with Enzymes.” In Pharmacological Basis of Cancer Chemotherapy (1975).
  • “Selectivity of Action of an Antiherpetic Agent, 9-(2-hydroxyethoxymethyl) guanine.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 74 (1977): 5716–5720.
  • “The Synthesis of 6-Thioguanine,” with George H. Hitchings. Journal of the American Chemical Society 77 (1955): 1676.

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".[28] Elion was the fifth female Nobel laureate in Medicine and the ninth in science in general, and one of only a handful of laureates without a doctoral degree.[21] She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1990,[29] a member of the Institute of Medicine in 1991[30] and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also in 1991.[31]

Her awards include the Garvan-Olin Medal (1968),[32] the Sloan-Kettering Institute Judd Award (1983),[2] the American Chemical Society Distinguished Chemist Award (1985),[2] the American Association of Cancer Research Cain Award (1985),[2] the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor (1990),[2] the National Medal of Science (1991),[33] and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997).[34] In 1991 Elion became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[35] She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame also in 1991.[36] In 1992, she was elected to the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame.[37] She was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1995.[1]

See also


  1. 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. "Gertrude Elion | Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  3. 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 January 25, 2018.
  4. Stille, Darlene R. (1995). Extraordinary Women Scientists. Childrens Press.
  5. "Gertrude B. Elion, M.Sc. Biography and Interview". American Academy of Achievement.
  6. Larsen, Kristine. "Gertrude Elion 1918–1999". Jewish Women's Archive Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 1, 2016.
  7. Bertha and Gertrude Elion | Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved on May 12, 2014.
  8. Colburn, Don (October 25, 1988). "PATHWAY TO THE PRIZE". Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  9. Elion, Gertrude. "Les Prix Nobel". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved February 21, 2014.
  10. "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988". Retrieved April 23, 2019.
  11. "Autobiography of Elion at". Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  12. "Biographical Memoirs Home". Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  13. "Gertrude Elion - Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  14. Altman, Lawrence K. (February 23, 1999). "Gertrude Elion, Drug Developer, Dies at 81". The New York Times. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  15. Gertrude B. Elion, Biography of Gertrude B. Elion, Jewish Women Encyclopedia
  16. Bouton, Katherine (January 29, 1989). "The Nobel Pair". The New York Times. Retrieved November 25, 2019.
  17. "George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion". Science History Institute. June 2016. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  18. McDowell, Julie L. (2002). "A lifetime quest for a cure" (PDF). Modern Drug Discovery (October): 51–52. Retrieved February 14, 2018.
  19. Staff (1988). "The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988: Sir James W. Black, Gertrude B. Elion, George H. Hitchings". Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  20. Wayne, Tiffany K. American Women of Science Since 1900: Essays A–H. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 370. ISBN 978-1598841589.
  21. "Gertrude Elion | Jewish Women's Archive". Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  22. Wasserman, Elga R. (2000). The door in the dream : conversations with eminent women in science. Joseph Henry Press. p. 47. ISBN 978-0-309-06568-9.
  23. Marx, Vivien (2005). "6-Mercaptopurine". Chemical & Engineering News. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  24. Koenig, R. (October 1, 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.
  25. 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.
  26. Chast, François (1970–1980). "Elion, Gertrude Belle". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 20. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 373–377. ISBN 978-0-684-10114-9.
  27. McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (1998). "Gertrude Elion". Nobel Prize Women in Science. Carol Publishing Group. pp. 280–303.
  28. Wasserman, Elga R. (2000). The door in the dream : conversations with eminent women in science. Joseph Henry Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-309-06568-9.
  29. "Gertrude B. Elion". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  30. "Directory: IOM Member – Gertrude B. Elion, M.S." Institute of Medicine. Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  31. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter E" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  32. "Francis P. Garvan–John M. Olin Medal". American Chemical Society. Retrieved February 14, 2018.
  33. Staff. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details: Gertrude B. Elion". National Science Foundation. Retrieved October 20, 2012.
  34. "$100,000 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award Winners" (PDF). MIT Technology Review Custom + Lemelson-MIT Program. Retrieved February 14, 2018.
  35. 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.
  36. "Elion, Gertrude Belle". National Women’s Hall of Fame. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  37. Wasserman, Elga R. (2000). The door in the dream : conversations with eminent women in science. Joseph Henry Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-309-06568-9.

Further reading

  • MacBain, Jenny (2004). Gertrude Elion : Nobel prize winner in physiology and medicine (1st ed.). Rosen Pub. Group. ISBN 9780823938766. OCLC 50285519.
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.