Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Gertrude B. Elion

“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.”
Gertrude B. Elion 

Born this day in 1918: Gertrude B. Elion (1918–1999), Nobel Prize laureate in physiology or medicine

Elion, a native New Yorker, graduated from high school at age 15. In 1937 she graduated from Hunter College with a degree in biochemistry. She was unable to obtain a graduate research position because—say it with me people—she was a woman. Instead, she took various work as a lab assistant, an assistant organic chemist, a chemistry and physics teacher, and a research chemist. She eventually earned a master’s degree chemistry from New York University (1941).

World War II, by necessity, opened up some doors for women, and Elion was able to begin pursuing biochemistry in earnest. In 1944 she began working in the Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories as assistant to and then colleague of George H. Hitchings. Using innovative research methods, they developed drugs to treat a variety of ailments, including leukemia, malaria, gout, viral herpes, and autoimmune disorders.

In 1957 Elion created the first immuno-suppressive agent, used in organ transplants. In 1967 she was named head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs Wellcome. After her official retirement in 1983, Elion oversaw the development of AZT, the first drug used to treat AIDS. She and Hitchings, along with Sir James W. Black, received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988. In 1991 she was awarded a National Medal of Science and became the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Her name is attached to more than 40 patents.

Gertrude B. Elion was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991.

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