Gertrude B Elion (1918-1999)

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

Gertrude Elion was a biochemist and pharmacologist who used innovative research methods to develop a range of new drugs.

Elion was born in New York in 1918 to immigrant parents. On graduating from high school in the Bronx she attended Hunter College, where she studied chemistry. She attributed her early interest in a scientific career to the death of her grandfather from cancer when she was just 15 years old. Having completed her degree, Elion struggled to find work as a chemist, facing prejudice because she was female. Instead she found part-time laboratory work, taught in secondary schools and studied for a masters in chemistry at New York University. The Second World War created increased demand for women laboratory workers, and Elion was hired as a research chemist by the pharmaceutical company Burroughs-Wellcome. In partnership with George Hitchings, she began extensive research into the chemical composition of disease cells. This work led to the development of two drugs for the treatment of leukaemia and one of the first immunosuppressive agents, used during organ transplants.

In 1967, Elion became Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs-Wellcome. Her team began research into substances that could block viral infections, which led to the development of acyclovir, a highly successful antiviral medication.

Following retirement, Elion worked as an adviser to the World Health Organization and the American Association for Cancer Research. In 1988 she shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with George Hitchings and James Black. She also continued to oversee laboratory work, including the development of azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug used for treatment of AIDS.