KEYWORDS: Cancer, leukaemia, organ transplantation rejection, malaria, AIDS, AZT, George H. Hitchings, Sir James Black.
SHE THOUGHT IT
Gertrude Belle Elion’s scientific discoveries directly contributed to the development of drugs for leukaemia, organ transplantation rejection, malaria and AIDS. She, George Hitchings and James W. Black shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for identifying important differences between “disease-causing cancer cells, protozoa, bacteria, and viruses and normal cells”1.
Gertrude Belle Elion was born in 1918 in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania and Poland. Biographers never fail to mention that the loss of several family members to cancer and other fatal diseases was the reason why Elion chose to pursue a career in science1. She attended Hunter College in New York, but a combination of factors, gender discrimination and the Depression in particular, made it difficult for her to find a graduate fellowship and to carry out an independent research2. Eventually, she saved enough money to do a year of graduate school at New York University. As the Second World War lasted for longer than anticipated, the lack of men forced employers into hiring women to perform jobs previously assigned to men. In 1944, Elion started working for George Hitchings at Burroughs Wellcome Company, a British pharmaceutical firm aiming to discover medicines for treating diseases until then incurable. When forced to choose between finishing her PhD and her job, she went for the latter. In 1950, Elion developed two compounds: the first one, 6-mercaptopurine, disrupts the cancerous cell formation in leukaemia patients; the second one, thioguanine, used in combination with 6-mercaptopurine prolongs the life expectancy of patients by preventing tumors from growing3 (p.38). In addition to that, her drugs enabled kidney transplants, helped curing rheumatoid arthritis, gout, hepatitis, lupus and herpes1 (p.293-297). Her antiviral research in the 1970s, during which a drug that attacks viruses from within was developed, altered scientists’ approach to viruses1 (p.293-297).
It should be noted that, in spite of her groundbreaking discoveries, Gertrude Elion wouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize without her supporters in academic research who defended the importance of her work alongside Hitchings1 (p.291).
She received 23 honorary degrees from, among others, George Washington University and Brown University. Although she officially retired in 1983, she remained a consultant to Burroughs Wellcome and “taught research methods to medical students at Duke University”1 (p.302). She is a holder of 45 patents2.
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
Elion’s associate, George Hitchings, received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1933. He became the head of the Biochemistry department at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Tuckahoe, New York in 1942. With Elvira Falco, Peter Russell and Gertrude Elion, they formed a successful research group. Nevertheless, after 23 years of collaborating, writing and publishing papers, Hitchings still considered Elion an assistant. According to McGrayne, Hitchings “was always the boss; he used ‘I’ for their work”2 (p.302). When Hitchings stopped doing active research in 1967, Elion became head of the Department of Experimental Therapy. It was there that she made a discovery of antiviral acyclovir, which largely contributed to her winning the Nobel Prize2. Shortly after her retirement, her former research unit produced a drug AZT for treating HIV1 (p.300).
SHE SAID IT
“I hadn’t been aware that there were doors closed to me until I started knocking on them. I went to an all-girls’ school. There were 75 chemistry majors in that class, but most were going to teach it [becoming future chemistry teachers…] When I got out and they didn’t want women in the laboratory, it was a shock. I really hadn’t anticipated that. Of course, I have to say it was a very bad time to graduate. It was the Depression and nobody was getting jobs. But I had taken that to mean nobody was getting jobs [… until I heard] ‘You’re qualified. But we’ve never had a woman in the laboratory before, and we think you’d be a distracting influence”.
cited by McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (2002), Nobel Prize women in science: their lives, struggles, and momentous discoveries,2nd edition, Washington, DC, Joseph Henry Press, 286
“Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t”.
cited by Avery, Mary Ellen, “Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999)”,
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Hunter College, <http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/physics/scientist/elion> (last accessed 22 Jun. 2016)
“I think though in those days, if one had gotten married, one could not have stayed in the job in the same way that I did, nor could one have had children and not had to leave. But I think it’s different now, I think women do have a choice – they can have both, it’s much more difficult – but at that time it was almost impossible, really”5.
cited by the Jewish Women’s Archive, “Gertrude Elion on Women’s Careers, 1988”, <https://jwa.org/media/gertrude-elions-views-on-problems-facing-women-in-workplace-at-beginning-of-her-career-and-tod> (last accessed 16 Jun. 2016)
PRIZES, DISTINCTIONS, HONORS
1968: Garvan Medal from The American Chemical Society.
1970: The President’s Medal from Hunter College.
1983: Judd Award from Memorial-Sloan Kettering Institute.
1984: Cain Award from the American Association for Cancer Research.
1988: Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
1990: Ernst W. Bertner Memorial Award from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
1990: The Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society.
1991: The National Medal of Science.
1991: First woman to be named in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Me & Isaac Newton (1999), dir. Michael Apted, Clear Blue Sky Productions, documentary.
Calne, Roy Yorke (1990), Gertrude Elion (1918-1999), oil on canvas, 60 x 49.7 cm, Wellcome Library, London.
Ritter, Debbie, Gertrude Elion Doll Miniature Biochemistry Pharmacist Historical Art Character, mixed media (wood, wire, clay, paint), 11.4cm (height), <https://www.etsy.com/il-en/listing/218410372/gertrude-elion-doll-miniature> (last accessed 15 Feb. 2017). A doll depicting Gertrude Elion.
“The Legacy of Gertrude Elion: Inventor of Medicines” (1999), by Mary Ann Bella, Bella International Productions, Inc, video. Excerpts can be found on Jewish Women’s Archive website, under Media: <https://jwa.org/womenofvalor/elion> (last accessed 9 Feb. 2017).
Ambrose, Susan A. / Kristin L. Dunkle / Barbara B. Lazarus / Indira Nair / Deborah A. Harkus (1997), Journeys of Women in Science and Engineering: No Universal Constants, Philadelphia, PA, Temple University Press.
Avery, Mary Ellen (2000), Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999): A biographical memoir, Washington, DC, The National Academy Press.
Bailey, Martha J. (1994), “Gertrude Belle Elion”, American Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary, 84-98.
Elion, Gertrude Belle (13 Oct. 1993), “James Hunt; North Carolina politics; Gertrude B. Elion; Alexander Julian”, Charlie Rose, interviewed by Charlie Rose, PBS, <https://charlierose.com/videos/20029> (last accessed 24 Jan. 2017).
Hitchings, George H. (2014), “George H. Hitchings – Biographical”, Nobelprize.org, Nobel Media AB, <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1988/hitchings-bio.html> (last accessed 22 May 2016).
Murray, Emily J. (ed.) (1995), Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists, New York, NY, Gale Research Inc.
Ogilvie, Marilyn / Joy Harvey (eds.) (2000), “Elion, Gertrude Belle (1918-1999)”, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century.
Slater, Elinor / Robert Slater (1994), Great Jewish Women, New York, NY, Jonathan David Publishers.
- McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (2002), Nobel Prize women in science: their lives, struggles, and momentous discoveries, 2nd edition, Washington, DC, Joseph Henry Press.
- Elion, Gertrude Belle (2014), “Gertrude Belle Elion – Biographical”, Nobelprize.org, Nobel Media AB, <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1988/elion-bio.html> (last accessed 22 May 2016).
- Swaby, Rachel (2015), Headstrong: 52 women who changed science—and the world, New York, Broadway Books.