Nobel Women

gertrude elion
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Gertrude B. Elion, 1988 Winner of Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

January 23, 2010
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Gertrude Elion received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together with George Hitchings and Sir James Black for her co-discovery and patent of the drug 6-mercaptopurine, used in the treatment of leukemia.

Elion also contributed to the development of other innovative drugs, such as Imuran, a drug that facilitates organ transplants, and Zovirax, for the treatment of herpes.

Gertrude Belle Elion was born in 1918 in New York City, the daughter of Lithuanian and Polish immigrants. Although she graduated with honors in chemistry from Hunter College at the age of 19, the prejudice against women that existed in the science field at the time made it difficult for Elion to continue her graduate studies. She persevered, however, and in 1941, she earned a master’s degree in chemistry at New York University.

In 1944, Elion accepted an assistant position with George Hitchings, who would eventually become her research partner. Both scientists collaborated during their careers at a company known at the time as Wellcome Research Laboratories, and were able to develop a variety of very influential drugs for the treatment of diseases such as gout, malaria and leukemia.

Elion was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1991 for her numerous scientific contributions, and her efforts to combat some of the world’s most lethal diseases. She dedicated her entire life to science, and never married nor had children. Elion died in 1999 at the age of 81.

For a complete autobiography, visit Gertrude B. Elion’s page on the Nobel Foundation Web site.

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