Gertrude Belle Elion was born January 23, 1918. Some 70 years later she was the winner, with Sir James Black and George Hitchings, of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. The child of immigrant parents, she decided to become involved in cancer research when she was only 15 years old after losing her grandfather to the disease.
Elion graduated from Hunter College at the young age of 18 with the highest undergraduate honors in chemistry. She was rejected however from 15 graduate schools because of their discriminatory attitude towards women in science. She ended up working as an unpaid lab assistant in order to continue her scientific research. Elion entered graduate school in 1939 at New York University, the only female student in her graduate chemistry class. While pursuing her graduate degree she substitute taught high school science. She obtained her Masters in Chemistry in 1941.
In 1944, Elion was hired by the pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome. It was during her 39 year career there that she achieved most of her scientific advances. It was for her development of 6-mercaplopurine used in chemotherapy to treat children with leukemia that she was awarded the Nobel Prize. She also developed the drug Imuran which aids the body in accepting organ transplants, and the drug Zovirax used to fight herpes. Her research methods led to the development of the AIDS drug AZT. She is also chiefly responsible for the drugs Zyloprim for gout, Daraprim from malaria, and Septra for meningitis, septicemia and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracks.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Elion has been awarded the National Medal of Science (1991), and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997). In 1991 she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She has been awarded three honorary doctorate degrees.
Elion never married, but was very close to her brother’s children. Her avocations were travel and music. She died in North Carolina in 1991, at the age of 81.
–Nancy Campbell Mead