Illustration by Ed Supovitz
Gertrude Elion

Jewish Heroes and

Heroines of America

1900 to World War II :


Gertrude B. Elion: Nobel Prize Recipient in Medicine
by Seymour Sy” Brody

Most pharmacologists are lucky to create one drug in their life, Gertrude B. Elion developed six. The highlight of her career was when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, in 1988, together with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black.

Elion’s other awards included being the first woman inducted into Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award , 1991; the National Medal of Science, 1991; the Garvan Medal from the American Chemical Society, 1968; the President’s Medal from Hunter College, 1970; the Judd Award from Memorial-Sloan Kettering Institute, 1983; the Cain Award from the American Association for Cancer Research, 1984; the Ernst W. Bertner Memorial Award from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center; Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society, in 1990.

She attained world-wide recognition without earning a Ph.D. However, she did receive 23 honorary degrees.

She worked alone and with George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome Pharmaceutical Company (now GlaxoSmithKline).

Her achievements were:

● 6-mercapopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for Leukemia (1)
● Azathioprine (Imuran), the first minimum-suppressive agent used for organ transplants
● Allopurinol (Zyloprim, for gout
● Pyrimethamine (Daraprin), for malaria
● Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts
● Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes

Gertrude Elion overcame many obstacles to reach the successes that she attained. She was born on January 23, 1918, in New York City. Her parents were Jewish. Her father was twelve when he came to the USA from Lithuania. He became a dentist. Her mother was a homemaker, who arrived from Poland when she was 14.

She went through the public school system and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Hunter College, in 1937. It was difficult for Elion to get a job because she was a woman. She decided to enroll in New York University to obtain her master-of-science degree, in 1941.

When the United States entered World War II, there was a shortage of scientists. Industry was compelled to hire women and she went to work as a chemist. In 1944, she was hired as a biochemist by Burroughs-Welcome Pharmaceutical Company. She spent the next 39 years with this firm and became head of their Department of Experimental Therapy, 1967.

Elion was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and served on their Council. She was a fellow of the Pharmaceutical Scientists and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Aboard, she was a foreign member of the Royal Society and an honorary member of the Spanish Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.

Gertrude Elion was always encouraging children to pursue scientific careers, especially the girls. She made science fun and exciting when working with children.

Gertrude B. Elion died on February 21, 1999. She left behind a legacy of scientific cures for many diseases and an open door for women to work as scientists.


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