Gertrude Belle Elion 
( 1918-1999 )
By Irene Helen Zundel

     Imagine having a broken heart from a loved one dying from an incurable disease, and nursing a burning desire to find a cure for it. Also imagine possessing a brilliant intellect, but having no money for school and little opportunity to enter a field where women traditionally weren't accepted. Would you be able to surmount such formidable obstacles, to go on to patent more than 45 life saving medicines, and even earn the coveted Nobel Prize? Well, Gertrude Belle Elion did just that!

     Gertrude Elion was born in New York City in 1918, the daughter of immigrant parents of Polish and Lithuanian descent. Her father was a dentist, and her mother a homemaker. Their comfortable life was shattered when her father lost everything in the great stock market crash of 1929.

     A brilliant student, Gertrude finished high school at age 12 and went on to attend the tuition free university, Hunter College. She graduated there at the age of 15. Equally gifted at both science and medicine, Gertrude was at first torn which discipline to pursue a career in. Fate helped her make the choice in 1933, when her beloved grandfather died from cancer. Hoping to find a cure for the awful disease that ravaged his body and took his life, she decided to pursue the study of chemistry. She enrolled in New York University, graduating as the only woman in that field, and with highest honors.

     She desperately wanted to work in a laboratory, but such positions weren't open to women until after WW II. In 1944 she became the assistant of Dr. George Hitchings at Burroughs Wellcome, a noted pharmaceutical company. Eventually she would become his research partner, along with Sir James Black.

     Together the trio changed the face of history. Instead of using the traditional trial by error method of experimentation, they based their research on the fundamental workings of human physiology. Gertrude headed up the research on nucleic acids, ( the building blocks of genetic material ), and the three of them found differences in the way normal cells, cancer cells, and infectious microbes used these nucleic acids to reproduce themselves. Eventually they learned how to block the replication of cancerous cells and infectious microbes without harming normal cells. 

     Upon retirement in 1983, she became involved in the development of AZT, the drug used in the treatment of AIDS. In 1988, Gertrude Elion, Dr. George Hitchings and Sir James Black shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology, for developing medicines used in the treatment of gout, malaria, herpes, leukemia and immune disorders. 

     In 1991 she was presented the National Medal of Science by President George Bush, and was honored as the first woman ever inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. She is also in the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame and the National Women's Hall of Fame. She died in 1999, at the age of 81.