Gertrude B. Elion

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Gertrude Elion
Gertrude Elion.jpg
Born Gertrude Belle Elion
(1918-01-23)January 23, 1918
New York City, United States
Died February 21, 1999(1999-02-21) (aged 81)
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
Citizenship United States
Alma mater Hunter College
Notable awards

Gertrude Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999)[1] was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black. Working alone as well as with Hitchings and Black, Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT.[2][3][4]

Education and early life

Elion was born in New York City, to immigrant parents Bertha (Cohen) and Robert Elion, a dentist. When she was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, instilling in her a desire to do all she could to try and cure the disease.[5] She graduated from Hunter College in 1937 with a degree in Chemistry[6] and New York University (M.Sc.) in 1941. Unable to obtain a graduate research position, she worked as a lab assistant and a high school teacher. Later, she left to work as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company (now GlaxoSmithKline).[7][8][9][10][11]

She began to go to night school at 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 what was then a critical decision in her life, to stay with her job and give up the pursuit of a doctorate.[6] She never obtained a formal Ph.D., but was later awarded an honorary Ph.D from Polytechnic University of New York in 1989 and honorary SD degree from Harvard university in 1998.

Career and research

Elion had moved to the Research Triangle in 1970. She 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.[12]

Rather than relying on trial-and-error, Elion and Hitchings used the differences in biochemistry between normal human cells and pathogens (disease-causing agents) to design drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of particular pathogens without harming the host cells. Most of Elion's early work came from the use and development of purines. Elion's inventions include:

During 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.[citation needed]

Awards and honors

In 1988 Elion received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, together with Hitchings and Sir James Black. She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1990,[14] a member of the Institute of Medicine in 1991[15] and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also in 1991.[16] Other awards include the National Medal of Science (1991),[17] Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997), and the Garvan-Olin Medal (1968). In 1991 she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[18] She was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1995.[1]

Personal life

Elion never married, had no children, and listed her hobbies as photography, travel and listening to music.[19] Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina in 1999, aged 81.


  • "I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much."
  • "The idea was to do research, find new avenues to conquer, new mountains to climb."[20]
  • "Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t." [21]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Holloway, M. (1991) Profile: Gertrude Belle Elion – The Satisfaction of Delayed Gratification, Scientific American 265(4), 40–44. PMID 1745899
  3. Chast, François (1970–80). "Elion, Gertrude Belle". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 20. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 373–377. ISBN 978-0-684-10114-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (1998). "Gertrude Elion". Nobel Prize Women in Science. Carol Publishing Group. pp. 280–303.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Bertha and Gertrude Elion | Jewish Women's Archive. Retrieved on May 12, 2014.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Elion, Gertrude. "Les Prix Nobel". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved February 21, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Autobiography of Elion at
  8. Biographical Memoirs of Elion by Mary Ellen Avery
  9. Women of Valor exhibit on Gertrude Elion at the Jewish Women's Archive
  10. New York Times obituary of Gertrude Elion
  11. Gertrude B. Elion, Biography of Gertrude B. Elion, Jewish Women Encyclopedia
  12. Wayne, Tiffany K. American Women of Science Since 1900: Essays A-H. Vol.1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. p. 370. ISBN 1598841580. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Marx, Vivien (2005). "6-Mercaptopurine". Chemical & Engineering News. Retrieved October 20, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Gertrude B. Elion". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Directory: IOM Member - Gertrude B. Elion, M.S." Institute of Medicine. Retrieved July 26, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter E" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 25, 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Staff. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details: GERTRUDE B. ELION". National Science Foundation. Retrieved October 20, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 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. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Staff (March 6, 1991). "Gertrude B. Elion: Interview (page: 5/7)". Academy of Achievement. Retrieved October 20, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Gertrude Elion url=". Missing pipe in: |title= (help); Missing or empty |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>