Gertrude Elion -- American Biochemist
Nobel Prize recipient in 1988. Developed the first successful drug treatment used for leukemia, kidney transplantation and herpes. Her research also led to the AIDS drug AZT
Because of her drug discoveries, kidney transplants are successful today and almost 80 percent of children with acute leukemia can now be cured. Her innovative research techniques in biochemistry also played a key role in the development of AZT, the first drug used in treating AIDS.
After graduating from high school in 1933, Gertrude Elion began deciding on selecting a major subject before she could begin her freshman year at Hunter College. This posed a quandary for the future Nobel Prize recipient. She had liked all her high school subjects, making it difficult to select just one. "I loved to learn everything, everything in sight and I was never satisfied that I knew everything there was to know in each of my courses," Gertrude recalled. Fatefully, that summer her grandfather, whom she loved dearly, died of cancer. "I watched him go over a period of months in a very painful way, and it suddenly occurred to me that what I really needed to do was to become a scientist, and particularly a chemist, so that I would go out there and make a cure for cancer."
Gertrude was born in New York City in 1918. Her father emigrated from Lithuania when he was twelve years old and went on to become a dentist in the United States. Her homemaker mother arrived in the United States from Poland at the age of fourteen. After graduating from college with a Bachelor's degree in chemistry, she worked several years as an office secretary, lab assistant, food analyst, and high school teacher while completing her Masters degree in chemistry at night. She was then hired as a biochemist during World War II at Wellcome Research Laboratories (then located in Tuckahoe, New York). There she worked for many years with prominent scientist George Herbert Hitchings, and together, they pioneered pharmaceutical research, discovering and developing drugs to treat serious and hard-to-manage diseases.
Why She's Important: One of the most prolific scientists in drug development, Gertrude received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988 with George Herbert Hitchings and Sir James Black for the scientific discovery of drugs to treat leukemia, herpes and other diseases, in addition to the drug that prevents the rejection of kidney transplants.
Her achievements and inventions in this realm include:
--6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first effective treatment for leukemia. (This drug is still widely used today in combination with several other anti-leukemia drugs);
--Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent in organ transplantation; still used today for human kidney transplants as well as severe rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus;
--Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes;
--Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout;
--Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.
In 1986, researchers, trained by Gertrude and Hitchings and using scientific techniques pioneered by the pair, developed azidothymidine, or AZT, the first drug used to treat AIDS,.
Other Achievements: The holder of more than 45 patents, Gertrude was the recipient of numerous honors and awards for her scientific discoveries, including: receiving the National Medal of Science (1991), the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997), and in 1991 becoming the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Renowned NBC broadcaster Tom Brokaw, in his book "The Greatest Generation," also devoted a chapter to her.
Education: She earned her Bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Hunter College, and her Master's of Science in Chemistry in 1941 from New York University, in addition to receiving 23 honorary degrees from universities in the U.S. and internationally. She also served as a research professor for some years at Duke University.
Gertrude died in North Carolina in 1999 at age 81.