Gertrude Belle Elion, along with George H. Hitchings with whom she worked with close to 40 years, and Sir James W. Black (British biochemist) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment.” Elion graduated from Hunter College with a Bachelors Degree in Chemistry in 1937 during the Great Depression when it was extremely difficult for a woman to find a job in science.
She didn’t let that stop her, Elion worked as a high school teacher, and as a lab assistant until she completed her Masters of Science degree in chemistry – which she did at nights – in 1941. It is great for humankind that Elion did not give up because her research led to the discovery of drugs to treat leukemia, malaria, gout, herpes and AIDS.
Name: Gertrude Belle Elion
Birth Date: January 1918 – February 1999
Job Functions: Medical Researcher, Biochemist
Fields: Biochemistry, Pharmacology, Immunology, Virology
Known For: Research led to the discovery of drugs to treat leukemia, malaria, gout, herpes and AIDS.
While in high school, Gertrude Belle Elion knew that she wanted to conducted research in cancer, and set out to achieve her goal by attaining the proper education credentials. She achieved her goals but not necessarily in the manner she expected. For instance, she was pursuing her doctorate degree part-time at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute while conducting serious research at work, and it got to the point where Elion was given an ultimatum, she had to make a choice, focus on her work or focus on her formal education full-time.
She opted for work, and that was okay for her because she had a remarkable career. Elion was the first person to receive a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine who wasn’t a physician or didn’t have a doctorate degree. The work she did mattered that much to humanity and she proved herself worthy by her contributions to medical research.
After Elion completed her first degree during the Great Depression, she couldn’t secure a job in science. So instead, she started her career instructing high school and nursing students and volunteered at a chemistry laboratory. In 1939, two years after she completed her first degree, she embarked on her master’s degree part-time, which she completed in 1941. World War II opened the way for women scientists, and in 1944, Elion secured a job as a biochemist for Wellcome Research Laboratories.
For 40 years, she worked with George Herbert Hitchings, and together they pioneered pharmaceutical research. Most successful people attain success by working with others who supported and complemented their skills and abilities. Elion and Hitchings worked very well together, and as a team they had phenomenal achievements, ultimately resulting in a Nobel Prize in 1988.
Elion rose through the ranks at Wellcome Research Laboratories – she started off as biochemist then was promoted to senior research chemist, to head of the Department of Experimental Therapy.
The Science Behind What They Did
Hitchings proposed that “Since all cells require nucleic acids, one might be able to stop the growth of rapidly dividing cells such as bacteria and tumor cells by substituting false building blocks, or antagonists of nucleic acid bases, in the synthesis of nucleic acid. Thus the replication of the unwanted cells might be prevented.”
With that premise in mind, Elion set to work on purines, which are nitrogenous bases that are important constituents of DNA. At that time, James D. Watson and Francis Crick who used x-ray diffraction data collected by Rosalind Franklin, had not yet proposed the double helix or spiral staircase structure of the DNA molecule, which they actually did in 1953. In 1951, Elion and Hitchings developed several drugs, purine antimetabolites which interfered with purine use. The drugs were rigorously tested and a treatment for leukemia was discovered. The testing opened new pathways for other research including leukemia chemotherapy.
One of the new research pathways led to a drug which assisted in successful kidney transplants, and another which treated gouts. In 1968, Hitchings and Elion returned to early research they had done on antiviral drugs, and developed a drug that was effective in treating herpes since 1981 without affecting normal cells. In 1986, researchers who had been trained by Hitchings and Elion developed AZT, the first drug used to treat AIDS.
Elion’s name appeared on 45 patents, and she received 25 honorary doctorates and was elected president of the American Association for Cancer Research. Gertrude Belle Elion’s work matters because she not only helped to create treatments for many life threatening diseases, but her worked advanced the understanding of cellular metabolism. After she retired, she continued some of her work through the World Health Organization, assisted students in medical research, and served on many related boards.
For those who would like to sink their teeth into the science of what Gertrude Belle Elion did, please refer to the sources cited/referenced for this profile.
Gertrude Belle Elion’s Steps to Success
- Knew she wanted to be a cancer researcher and pursued her goals starting with the proper education.
- Persistence: When Elion couldn’t get a job in science during the Great Depression, she volunteered at a medical laboratory, and pursued further education.
- Worked with someone who complemented her skills.
- To accomplish what she did in life, Elion had to know how to keep her ego in check. In addition, Hitchings proposed how to target their research and she acted on it.
- Knew how to make tough choices – focus on work or pursue doctorate full-time.
- Solved problems and mysteries that positively impacted humankind.
- Elion gave back by mentoring young researchers through the Wellcome Foundation.
Why Gertrude Belle Elion’s Contribution Matters
Gertrude Belle Elion’s contribution matters because her research led to the discovery of drugs to treat leukemia, malaria, gout, herpes and AIDS.
Pearls of Wisdom from Gertrude Belle Elion
- Understand the fundamentals of what you do, which will enable you to make innovative changes to the way things get done in your field.
- The road to success is seldom paved with a smooth surface. Gertrude Belle Elion was awarded a Nobel Prize for the Scientific Discovery of Several Drugs, but before she could get into her field, she had to start her career instructing high school and nursing students and volunteer at a chemistry laboratory.
- Pass on your wisdom by mentoring others. Elion mentored young researchers.
Why Gertrude Belle Elion Would Make an Excellent Invisible Mentor
Gertrude Belle Elion is an excellent invisible mentor because her life is a demonstration that persistence pays. Elion had to make tough choices and live with them – she had to choose between work and pursuing her doctoral studies. She chose work and humankind benefited significantly because of the results of her research.
Science and Its Times, Volume 7
Encyclopedia of World Biography
New Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Chemistry: Foundations of Applications
World of Microbiology and Immunology
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