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Gertrude B. Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, and a 1988 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Born in New York City to immigrant parents, she graduated from Hunter College in 1937 and New York University (M.Sc.) in 1941. Unable to obtain a graduate research position due to her gender, she worked as a lab assistant and a high school teacher, before becoming an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company (now GlaxoSmithKline). She never obtained a formal Ph.D., but she was later awarded an honorary Ph.D from George Washington University.

Working alone as well as with Hitchings, Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT. Rather than relying on trial-and-error, Elion and Hitchings used the differences in biochemistry between normal human cells and pathogens (disease-causing agents) to design drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of particular pathogens without harming the host cells.

Elion's inventions include:

  • 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukemia.[1]
  • Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.
  • Allopurinol (Zyloprim), for gout.
  • Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria.
  • Trimethoprim (Septra), for meningitis, septicemia, and bacterial infections of the urinary and respiratory tracts.
  • Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes.

In 1988 Elion received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, together with Hitchings and Sir James Black. Other awards include the National Medal of Science (1991) and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997). In 1991 she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina in 1999, aged 81. She had moved to the Research Triangle in 1970, and for a time served as a research professor at Duke University. She was unmarried.


  • "I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of stomach cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much."
  • "The idea was to do research, find new avenues to conquer, new mountains to climb!"


  • Garvan-Olin Medal (1968)
  • Nobel Prize in Medicine (1988)
  • National Medal of Science (1991)
  • Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997)
  • National Inventors Hall of Fame (1991) (first woman to be inducted)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Gertrude_B._Elion". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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