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Gertrude Elion

Published: 02 Jun 2016 in Pharmacology Hall of Fame

Elected in 2016

Born on 23 January 1918 in New York City, New York, USA
Died on 21 February 1999 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

Achievements

  • In 1988, Gertrude received the Nobel Prize in Medicine together with her long-time boss and collaborator George Hitchings and Sir James Black ‘for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment’.
  • She received her first degree in chemistry with distinction from a free college in New York when she was just 19. She had to work to fund her masters at New York University and was never able to complete her PhD.
  • She joined British-owned pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome as a senior research chemist in 1944, where she worked on chemotherapy, developing substances which could interrupt metabolic processes in cancer cells without damaging normal body cells.
  • In 1954, she patented the leukaemia-fighting drug 6-mercaptopurine. Her work also led to the development of allopurinol (for gout), azathioprine (which limits rejection in organ transplants), pyrimethamine (for malaria), and trimethoprim (for meningitis and bacterial infections) which are all still widely used drugs.
  • Her work developing the first treatment against herpes (acyclovir) proved that selective antiviral drugs could be developed. On this principle, her colleagues later developed the anti-HIV drug azidothymidine.
  • In 1991, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Personal life

  • Gertrude saw her grandfather die of cancer when she was 15 years old. She later described how this made her “highly motivated to do something that might eventually lead to a cure for this terrible disease”.
  • Regarding the 15 rejections she received for financial assistance from graduate schools throughout the country, she is reported to have said, “I hadn’t been aware that any doors were closed to me until I started knocking on them”.
  • Elion’s fiancé died after developing bacterial endocarditis in 1941, while her mother died of cervical cancer in 1956. Both events are said to have strengthened her commitment to pharmaceutical research.