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