Influential Women in Medicine: Gertrude B. Elion

Although she never obtained an M.D. or a formal Ph.D., Gertrude Belle Elion’s influence on medicine is indisputable. A biochemist and pharmacologist, her work paved the way for breakthroughs in cancer and leukemia medication that would save thousands of lives.



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Elion was born in New York in 1918 to Polish and Lithuanian immigrant parents. When she was 15, her grandfather died from cancer, which gave her the drive to want to cure diseases. In 1937, at age 19, she graduated from Hunter College with an undergrad degree in chemistry. Although she applied for fifteen graduate school fellowships, she was rejected from all of them.


Eventually she landed a position as a chemistry lab assistant. After saving some money from this position, Elion enrolled in grad school at New York University and was the only woman in her class. She worked during the day as a substitute teacher and studied at night, earning an MSc in chemistry in 1941.


After holding a few laboratory jobs that didn’t really fuel her interests, Elion was offered an assistant position by George Hitchings at Burroughs-Wellcome (later GlaxoSmithKline). Elion was excited by the opportunities to use her knowledge, not only in chemistry, but also biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology and virology. While working on antagonists of nucleic acid building blocks by day, she commuted to night school to earn her doctorate. Eventually she was told by the university that she would have to enroll full time if she wanted to continue. At this point, Elion decided to give up school entirely and continued to pursue her career with Hitchings.


Hitchings was investigating purines, trying to mimic the natural structures of cells and pathogens. The team was developing the first drugs that used biochemistry to target differences in the pathogens that would allow for treatment to inhibit the pathogen without harming the host cells. In 1967 Elion was appointed Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy. Her groundbreaking approach to research provided the building blocks for the later development for AZT for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.



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Through her work, many of the treatments discovered include:


• 6-mercaptopurine(Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia and used in organ transplantation

• Azathioprine(Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants

• Pyrimethamine(Daraprim), for malaria

• Trimethoprim(Proloprim, Monoprim, others), for meningitissepticemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts, among others.


In 1988, along with Hitchings and Sir James Black, Elion received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries of “important new principles of drug treatment.” Numerous awards and honors followed throughout her career and in 1991 she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.