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Gertrude Elion: Biography, Inventions & Accomplishments

Instructor: Elizabeth Friedl

Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Noble Prize winner Gertrude Elion made many contributions to the fields of chemistry and medicine. In this lesson you will learn about her life, her discoveries, and her many important accomplishments.

Important Nobel Prize Contributors

Nobel Prize winners aren't often household names, but you shouldn't use that as a measure of their importance. This prestigious award is given to individuals who make significant impacts to society in meaningful ways across many different disciplines. We often take these contributions for granted in our daily lives, but without them our lives would be much different. For example, the discovery of insulin, penicillin, human blood groups, DNA, and radioactivity are just a few Nobel winning contributions that we don't think twice about. One very important Nobel Prize winner who has had a profound impact on medicine is Gertrude Elion.

Gertrude Elion made many important contributions to chemistry and medicine
Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion - A Driven Scientist

Born in 1918, Elion was the daughter of Lithuanian and Polish immigrant parents. She grew up in New York, and from a young age she had the desire to learn. Elion was very close with her grandfather, who died from cancer when she was 15 years old. After watching him suffer, she decided to dedicate her life to sparing others from such pain, and at this same young age began studying chemistry at Hunter College in New York. She graduated summa cum laude ('with highest honors') four years later.

Though she was brilliant and enthusiastic, the 1930s were a tough time to be a woman in the work force, especially in the hard sciences. Having trouble getting hired as a female chemist, Elion went back to school to earn a Master's degree at New York University, while also working as a lab assistant and substitute teacher.

When World War II started, men left the work force so they could serve overseas instead. Women took on many of the 'traditional' male jobs to fill the vacancies, but they also had the opportunity to prove that they could do those jobs just as well. In 1944, Elion was hired by Dr. George Hitchings at what is now the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. He was so impressed by her that he kept giving her more responsibilities. Eventually they became colleagues and co-Nobel Prize winners for their work.

The work of Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings eventually won them the Nobel Prize in medicine
Hitchings and Elion

Though Elion officially retired in 1983, she didn't slow down much. In 1989, she was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Polytechnic University of New York and an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Harvard in 1998. She was awarded a National Medal of Science and inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1991. After retirement she was a scientist emeritus (someone who is retired but allowed to keep their title) and consultant at GlaxoSmithKline, and an adviser for the World Health Organization and the American Association for Cancer Research. In 1999, Elion died at the age of 81 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Contributions to Medicine

Although the death of her grandfather to cancer was her first major inspiration in chemistry, Elion made many contributions to medicine. One reason she was so successful was because she and Hitchings took a different approach to studying diseases and pathogens. Instead of using trial-and-error, they looked at differences between normal human cells and the cells of disease-causing agents such as viruses and bacteria. They could then create drugs that could target that pathogen and at the same time leave the human host cells unharmed. This was called the rational drug design. This approach made their work of developing new treatment drugs much more efficient and effective.

One of the diseases that Elion and Hutchings developed a treatment for is malaria
mosquito, malaria

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