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Gertrude B Elion (1918-99)

In 1988, the American chemist Gertrude B Elion was awarded a Nobel Prize for her contributions to chemotherapy.

The daughter of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, Elion saw her beloved grandfather die of cancer when she was 15. She later considered this experience the ‘turning point’ in her life: she decided to pursue a career in science in search of a cure for cancer. Elion received her first degree in chemistry with distinction from a free college in New York when she was just 19, but could not afford a postgraduate degree. Colleges did not offer her funding to do a PhD; they did not want a woman in the laboratory, because they were afraid she might be a ‘distraction’ to other - male - students. She worked in many jobs, for instance as a teacher and in the chemical industry, while saving money to pursue a part-time master's degree in chemistry.

In the 1940s, Elion’s fiancé died of a bacterial infection - a few years later, he could have been saved by penicillin. This further reinforced Elion's decision to work in pharmaceutical research. In 1944 she joined the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome as a senior research chemist. She worked on chemotherapy, developing substances which could interrupt metabolic processes in cancer cells without damaging normal body cells. In 1954 Elion patented the leukaemia-fighting drug 6-mercaptopurine. Her work also led to the first treatment against herpes and to the development of a drug which prevents the rejection of implanted organs by the host body. She received her Nobel Prize in Medicine together with George Hitchings and Sir James Black.

 

 

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Bibliography

B F Shearer and B S Shearer (eds), Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: a Biographical Dictionary (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1997)

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