Gertrude B. Elion
Gertrude Elion spent her childhood in New York City with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and when it came time to decide her college major she made the choice to study chemistry in hopes of being able to develop treatments for those suffering from cancer, which her grandfather had passed away from just a few years earlier.
After college she struggled to find work as the Great Depression made findings jobs for men difficult and for a woman in a science field nearly impossible. Elion volunteered in the lab of a chemist to gain experience and was finally given a salary that she saved in order to pay for school. Finally earning enough to return to earn her Master’s Degree she would teach high school during the day and work on her research at night until she earned her degree.
Working for a short time in quality control for a grocery store she learned what she could and then moved on never staying somewhere that couldn’t teach her something and help her along her path. The onset of World War II left a number of unfilled positions at research labs and Elion was offered a job at Burroughs-Wellcome working as an assistant to Dr. George Hitchings. The pair would take the drug research methods of the time and adapt them to follow more closely with the careful scientific method that was being used in other fields.
Elion worked on the development of many new types of pharmaceuticals including drugs to combat meningitis and bacterial infections, gout, herpes, and malaria. Using their methods to produce drugs that could target specific pathogens, Elion was able to develop the first two medications used to combat leukemia and the antirejection medications used for the first human heart transplant.
Officially retiring in 1983, Elion continued working almost full time at the lab and oversaw the adaptation of AZT–the first drug used for the treatment of AIDS. Five years later Elion would share the Nobel Prize in medicine with Hitchings and another drug researcher for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment.
Written by Angela Goad