Gertrude Belle Elion, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1988

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Gertrude Belle Elion, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1988

Birthdate:
Birthplace: New York, New York County, New York, United States
Death: February 21, 1999 (81)
Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Robert Elion and Bertha Elion
Sister of Private

Occupation: scientist
Managed by: Yigal Burstein
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Gertrude Belle Elion, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1988

Gertrude Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, and a 1988 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Working alone as well as with George H. Hitchings, Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT.

Biography

Elion was born in New York City, to immigrant parents Bertha (Cohen) and Robert Elion, a dentist. When she was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, instilling in her a desire to do all she could to try and cure the disease. She graduated from Hunter College in 1937 with a degree in Chemistry and New York University (M.Sc.) in 1941. Unable to obtain a graduate research position, she worked as a lab assistant and a high school teacher. Later, she left to work as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company (now GlaxoSmithKline). After several years of long range commuting, she was informed that she would no longer be able to continue her doctorate on a part-time basis, but would need to give up her job and go to school full-time. Elion made what was then a critical decision in her life, to stay with her job and give up the pursuit of a doctorate.

She never obtained a formal Ph.D., but was later awarded an honorary Ph.D from Polytechnic University of New York in 1989 and honorary SD degree from Harvard university in 1998. She attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now known as Polytechnic University of New York) but did not graduate. Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina in 1999, aged 81. She had moved to the Research Triangle in 1970, and for a time served as a research professor at Duke University. She had also worked for the National Cancer Institute, American Association for Cancer Research and World Health Organization, among other organizations. From 1967 to 1983, she was the Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy for Burroughs Wellcome. Elion never married, had no children, and listed her hobby as 'listening to music'.

Work

Rather than relying on trial-and-error, Elion and Hitchings used the differences in biochemistry between normal human cells and pathogens (disease-causing agents) to design drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of particular pathogens without harming the host cells. Most of Elion's early work came from the use and development of purines.

Elion's inventions include:

  • Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.
  • Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.
  • Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.
  • Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.
  • Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.
  • Nelarabine for cancer treatment.

Awards and Honors

  • In 1988 Elion received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, together with Hitchings and Sir James Black.
  • Elected member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1990
  • Elected member of the Institute of Medicine in 1991
  • Elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also in 1991
  • Awarded the National Medal of Science (1991)
  • Awarded the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997)
  • Awarded the Garvan-Olin Medal (1968).
  • In 1991 she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
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Gertrude Belle Elion, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1988's Timeline

1918
January 23, 1918
New York, New York County, New York, United States
1999
February 21, 1999
Age 81
Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, United States