In a career spanning over 40 years, Gertrude Belle Elion invented some of the 20th century's most significant lifesaving drugs.
Elion was born in New York City in 1918. Her childhood love of science was fostered both in public school and in frequent trips to the Bronx Zoo. By 1933, when she was only 15, Elion was ready to enter college. Her father, a dentist, had suffered financially in the stockmarket crash of 1929, but Elion's grades were good enough to secure her free admission to Hunter College (the women's college of the College of the City of New York).
Elion had some trouble choosing a major since there was no scientific subject that she did not love. However, her grandfather had died of cancer when she was 15, which inspired Elion to choose chemistry in order to one day join the search for a cure. Elion both enjoyed and excelled at her college studies, graduating summa cum laude in 1937. However, in the aftermath of the Depression, it was nearly impossible for even the most talented woman to be accepted into a graduate program in science or a research position at an industrial laboratory.
After some time teaching biochemistry and then assisting in a chemistry lab, Elion finally entered the graduate program in chemistry at New York University in 1939. She was the only female in her class, though, as she remembers it, "no one seemed to mind." When Elion earned her MS two years later, in 1941, World War II had begun. According to Elion, "[the war] changed everything. Whatever reservations there were about employing women in laboratories simply evaporated."
After working some time in quality control for a food company, Elion finally received a major research assignment. In 1944, she became an assistant to George Hitchings in Burroughs-Wellcome's pharmaceutical research labs. Her first assignments focused on purines (compounds based in C5H4N4). She noted, "Each series of studies was like a mystery story in that we were constantly trying to deduce what the microbiological results meant, with little biochemical information to help us." In the late 1950s, however, advances in biosynthesis pointed Hitchings and Elion toward applications for their research.
Working both alone and with Hitchings, Elion began to produce lifesaving drugs based on purines. In 1959, she was awarded a patent for 2-Amino-6-Mercaptopurine, or "Purinethol," the first major medicine to fight leukemia. In 1962, Elion was granted a patent for "Imuran," which helps the body suppress its immune reaction to foreign tissue – most importantly, that of transplanted organs. Imuran has thus made kidney transplants between non-related donors and patients common, whereas they had previously almost always failed.
Later, Elion invented "Zyloprim," which fights gout, and "Zovirax," which battles herpes infections. She was named on 45 patents. Meanwhile, Elion moved up the ranks at Burroughs-Wellcome (now Glaxo Wellcome Inc.). She served as Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy from 1967 until her retirement in 1983, at which point she became Scientist Emeritus and Consultant.
Elion also worked with the National Cancer Institute, the Leukemia Society of America, and the World Health Organization, in addition to teaching as Research Professor at Duke University Medical School. Elion was famed throughout the medical research industry as an awe-inspiring yet accessible mentor to young scientists. In what spare time she could find, Elion enjoyed photography, music, and international travel.
In 1988, Gertrude Elion won the Nobel Prize for Medicine (an honor she shared with George Hitchings). In 1991, Elion won the National Medal of Science. In 1997, Elion won the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998, she received an honorary doctoral degree from Harvard University, was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame, became an honorary member of the New York Academy of Sciences, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Arthritis Foundation. Dr. Elion is also featured in the 1999 documentary film, “Me & Isaac Newton.”
Gertrude Belle Elion died on February 21, 1999 at the age of 81. But the scope and significance of Elion's achievements cannot be overstated and will be remembered all around the world.
For Gertrude Elion's Nobel site autobiography (1988), see: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1988/elion-bio.html
For an interview with Gertrude Elion, see http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/eli0int-1 .