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Gertrude B. Elion

Gertrude B. ElionAKA Gertrude Belle Elion

Born: 23-Jan-1918
Birthplace: New York City
Died: 21-Feb-1999
Location of death: Chapel, NC
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Female
Religion: Jewish
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Scientist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Developed medicines for leukemia, herpes, AIDS

American pharmacologist and biochemist Gertrude B. Elion graduated summa cum laude from a tuition-free college when she was only 19, then worked as a substitute schoolteacher to earn tuition for graduate school and, in her first lab work, tested pickles and berries for quality at the Quaker Maid Company. She later worked at Burroughs-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline), while attending night school for her doctorate degree. When the university informed her she would be required to attend full-time, she dropped out instead, deciding she did not want to leave her day job at the lab.

In several decades at her day job, Elion helped develop the first drugs to combat leukemia, herpes, and AIDS, and pioneered new research methods to design drugs that could target specific pathogens. The medicines she developed include acyclovir (for herpes), allopurinol (for gout), azathioprine (which limits rejection in organ transplants), purinethol (for leukemia), pyrimethamine (for malaria), and trimethoprim (for meningitis and bacterial infections). In 1967 she was became the head of the company's Department of Experimental Therapy. Elion officially retired in 1983 but 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. She won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988, sharing the honor with George H. Hitchings, her long-time boss and collaborator at Burroughs-Wellcome, and with Sir James W. Black.

"People ask me often", she said, "[was] the Nobel Prize the thing you were aiming for all your life? And I say that would be crazy. Nobody would aim for a Nobel Prize because, if you didn't get it, your whole life would be wasted. What we were aiming at was getting people well, and the satisfaction of that is much greater than any prize you can get."

Father: Robert Elion (dentist)
Mother: Bertha Cohen Elion

    High School: (1933)
    University: BS Chemistry, Hunter College (1937)
    Teacher: Biochemistry, New York Hospital School of Nursing (1937)
    Teacher: Science, New York City Dept of Education (1938-39)
    University: MS Chemistry, New York University (1941)
    University: PhD Chemistry, Polytechnic University of New York
    Professor: Medicine and Pharmacology, Duke University

    Nobel Prize for Medicine 1988 (with James W. Black and George H. Hitchings)
    National Medal of Science 1991
    National Inventors Hall of Fame 1991
    National Women's Hall of Fame 1991
    Johnson & Johnson (lab worker, 1943-44)
    GlaxoSmithKline (biochemist, 1944-83)
    Academy of Achievement (1989)
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Association for Cancer Research President (1983-84)
    American Chemical Society
    American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics
    American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
    National Academy of Sciences
    National Cancer Institute Board member
    New York Academy of Sciences
    Royal Society
    World Health Organization Steering Committee on the Chemotherapy of Malaria
    Lithuanian Ancestry Paternal
    Russian Ancestry Maternal
    Polish Ancestry Maternal

Author of books:
Purine and Pyrimidine Metabolism in Man (1992, with R. Angus Harkness)

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