Monday, January 23, 2017

A Woman of Chemistry

If you or someone you love has ever been treated for leukemia, lupus or gout (or a host of other ailments) then you quite likely owe a debt of gratitude to Gertrude Elion (1918-1999), who would have been 99 years old today. This Nobel Prize winning chemist overcame the blatant chauvinism and anti-Semitism of her day to achieve her dreams of helping to fight cancer. (She set her mind on finding a cure for cancer after her grandfather died, painfully, from stomach cancer.)

Born in New York City, Elion graduated high school at 15 and went on to Hunter College. While working full-time in various other jobs, she attended New York University. After earning her Masters in chemistry, however, she struggled to find a position, finally joining the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company working with Dr. George Hitchings, with whom she would continue to work for many more years. The work was intense and exciting and, in 1950 she had her first breakthrough with 2 cancer drugs. At the same time, Elion was studying for her PhD, but was forced to choose between work and her doctorate. She chose work. Later, Elion would be awarded over a dozen honorary doctorates from a wide variety of institutions.

In addition to her position at Burroughs Wellcome, Elion held numerous positions in prestigious medical organizations and taught at Duke University. She officially retired in 1983, but continued working in her field and was part of the larger team that developed AZT, the first effective HIV medication.

In 1988, Elion and Hitchings, along with Sir James Black, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicie for “important principals in drug treatment.” Among the numerous other awards and honors she received, Elion was the first woman admitted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1991.

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