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|Gertrude Belle Elion
co-developer of 45 drugs
Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City, on January 23, 1918, the daughter of a dentist. She attended Hunter College at the age of 15, and graduated summa cum laude in 1937. Jobs were scarce in those days, especially for women, but she managed to secure a three-month job teaching biochemistry to nurses in the New York Hospital of Nursing. She then spent a year and a half as a laboratory assistant for a chemist. She entered graduate school at New York University in 1939, and received her Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1941.
Hired by Burroughs-Wellcome (now Glaxo-Smith-Kline) in 1944, she began work on antagonists of nucleic acid building blocks. This led to the synthesis of 6-mercaptopurine, a drug marketed as Purinethol, and to another antileukemic drug, 6-thioguanine. Continued research led to Imuran, a derivative of 6-mercaptopurine that was found to block the body's rejection of foreign tissues. In combination with other drugs, Imuran enabled kidney transplants from unrelated donors.
In 1967, Elion was named head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs-Wellcome. In that position, Elion and her team were responsible for the development of allopurinol (trade name Zyloprim), for treatment of gout, and of acyclovir (trade name Zovirax), an antiviral agent used to battle herpes infections. By the time she retired in 1983, Elion's name appeared on 45 drug patents.
In 1988, Elion shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with George Hitchings, her colleague of forty years, and researcher Sir James Black. On May 18, 1991, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Gertrude Belle Elion died on February 21, 1999.
This page was last updated on 02/24/2017.