Gertrude Elion
(January 23, 1918 - February 21, 1999)
Born in New York City
Years of Discovery: 1940s - 1980s

Denied Scholarships Due to Being a Woman,  She Pioneered Drug Design for Cancer and Gout

Growing up, Gertrude Elion’s role model was the Nobel Prize winning woman scientist, Marie Curie. She was a highly curious and intelligent little girl, and soon skipped two grades. Graduating from high school at only 15, she went to Hunter College in New York, but grew up quickly when her beloved grandfather died of stomach cancer her very first year. Seeing him in the hospital changed her life. She said, “I remember how shocked I was at his change in appearance. It was the first time I really understood how awful disease could be. I wondered how this happened to people. In the hope that I could do something to combat disease, I decided to become a scientist.” She majored in chemistry.

In 1937 she graduated college and started applying to graduate schools. It was the depths of the depression, and there were many poor people and very high unemployment. But it was more than the depression holding back women in the 1930s. There was much discrimination, as Gertrude would quickly learn. All 15 schools declined her request for financial aid, even though she had graduated with high honors. The fact was, most scholarships were reserved for men. With no money, she looked for a job she would enjoy - laboratory work. When she applied, one laboratory after another turned her away. It was hard for her to even get an interview. When a laboratory told her she was too pretty and would be a distraction to all the men, she finally understood her predicament. “I almost fell apart,” Gertrude later remembered. “That was the first time that I thought being a woman was a real disadvantage. It surprises me to this day that I didn’t get angry. I got very discouraged.”

She took different jobs just to make money and even enrolled in secretarial school. But she quickly dropped out. It was better to take a non paying job teaching biochemistry to nursing students, than to give up her dream and not work in science. Taking other jobs and living with her parents, she finally saved enough money for a year of graduate school. Working as a substitute teacher during the day, she enrolled at NYU and pursued her studies at night. Things began to go her way in life. She was learning fast, even correcting her professors, and she fell in love with Leonard Canter, a statistics student at City College. They made great plans, including marriage.

In 1941 she graduated with a masters degree, the only woman in her class. But suddenly her fiancé became ill and died of bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the lining of the heart. Two years later penicillin, the first antibiotic, was created. It would have saved him. She was devastated at her loss, but through her grief she became even more determined to fight disease.

Sexual discrimination had not disappeared, so her job search was still limited. But she did find a lab job testing the acidity of pickles and checking frozen strawberries for mold. “It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind but it was a step in the right direction,” she said.

Then came World War II. A million men went into the military, and suddenly laboratories had unfilled jobs. At the age of 26, Gertrude applied for a real research job as a biochemist at the Burroughs Wellcome Company. Dr. George Hitchings hired her on the spot during her first interview. When she walked into the lab she saw 73 men and only one other woman. Soon she was collaborating with Hitchings and it not only would change them both, but also the lives of many ill people.

Within two years, Gertrude, or “Trudy” as she was often called, began publishing papers. Dr. Hitchings allowed her to put her name first as lead investigator, which was unusual since she didn’t have a PhD. During the course of her career, she published 225 papers.

George and Trudy worked well together and developed a novel process to research and create new drugs. They methodically sought to create new molecules with just those specific structures which would disrupt a disease process. This was a much more refined approach than the trial and error method employed by most labs and became known as “rational drug design.”

One of their first successes was a drug called 6-MP, or 6-mercaptopurine. Realizing that tumors required large amounts of nucleic acids to sustain growth, they targeted chemicals that would disrupt this. At that time, 50% of children with Acute Leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells, died within months. In 1954 they tested their drug on leukemia patients. The results were great, but then the patients would relapse and the cancer would return. Eventually they discovered that combining 6-MP with other drugs worked. Today, 55 years later, 6-MP is still in use. With a combination of other drugs it cures around 80% of children with leukemia.

Next they discovered Imuran, (azathioprine). It was used until 2000 to prevent organ rejection (mostly kidneys) and saved more than 1,000,000 lives. In 1963, they developed allopurinol which treated gout. Gout, sometimes called the disease of kings because of its association with the rich and famous, causes painful joints, but it can also be fatal when the kidneys become blocked. Millions more lives were saved.

In 1967, Dr. Hitchings retired and Gertrude stepped into his position as the first woman to lead a major research group. She continued developing drugs, including acyclovir, which works as an anti-viral treatment for shingles, herpes, Epstein-Barr virus, and herpes encephalitis (a fatal brain infection). Gertrude called this drug her “final jewel” and it became the company’s largest selling product. She retired at age 65 to teach at the University of North Carolina and mentor medical students at Duke University. In 1984, her lab used her methodology to develop AZT (azodothymidine) as a treatment for AIDS. And in 1988, she received a phone call that would make her know she had achieved her goal. A reporter congratulated her on winning the Nobel Prize, just like her hero, Marie Curie. 

Written by science writer, Martha Pat Kinney

Lives Saved:  Over 7,000,000
Key Contributors
George Hitchings
Gertrude Elion
President George H.W. Bush
And his wife, Barbara had a daughter they named Robin. At age 4 she came down with leukemia and died. Elion and Hitchings had just developed the future lifesaving leukemia drug, MP6 at that time.  MP6 put leukemia into short term remission when it first came out. Eventually, when it was combined with other drugs, the cure rate increased from 10% in the 1960s to 90% by the end of the century.

Gertrude "Trudy" Elion Quotes
I had fallen in love with a young man... and we were planning to get married. And then he died of subacute bacterial endocarditis... Two years later with the advent of penicillin, he would have been saved. It reinforced in my mind the importance of scientific discovery...

Nobody . . . took me seriously. They wondered why in the world I wanted to be a chemist when no women were doing that. The world was not waiting for me.

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.

It is important to go into work you would like to do. Then it doesn't seem like work. You sometimes feel it's almost too good to be true that someone will pay you for enjoying yourself. I've been very fortunate that my work led to useful drugs for a variety of serious illnesses. The thrill of seeing people get well who might otherwise have died of diseases like leukemia, kidney failure, and herpes virus encephalitis cannot be described in words.

People ask me often whether the Nobel Prize was the thing you were aiming for all your life, and I say that would be crazy. Nobody would aim for a Nobel Prize because, if you didn't get it, your whole life would be wasted. What we were aiming at was getting people well, and the satisfaction of that is much greater than any prize you can get.

ElionHitchings1948 copyElionHitchings1988

Gertrude Elion Was the Catalyst for exists solely due to Gertrude Elion & George Hitchings. From my 20s I had gout. For a decade it occurred intermittently, two weeks of agonizing foot pain, then all was well for a year or two. But one year it refused to go away – for two years I was in pain! I couldn’t pet a dog, couldn’t lean against a wall. I thought pain would dominate my life as long as I lived.

Finally, I was put on the drug allopurinol. After months, my pain lessened. Then one day I walked outside and felt the breeze. It was the most wonderful feeling in the world. My pain was gone. For a month I walked on clouds. Allopurinol was a miracle. Life felt wonderful again. Then one day I suddenly stopped as a thought coursed through my brain. Allopurinol did not come from a pharmacy. Someone created it. Who?

Searching, I found that Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings developed the drug in the 1960s. Further research indicated that gout actually killed 10,000 people a year before allopurinol. My case was so bad, I likely would have been one of them. Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings saved my life twofold – they allowed me to live pain free and allowed me to likely die of something other than gout.

My gratitude led me to seek out the biggest lifesavers in history, which to my surprise no one had tabulated before. So, I spent four years researching, culminating in the book – Scientists Greater Than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentieth Century. Since I only included ten biographies in the book, I founded this website to run the list up over 100, so it would include Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings. Few people know how much we owe lifesaving scientists. Scientists’ discoveries alter the trajectories of all of our lives, for virtually none of us goes through life unscathed by illness. Virtually all of us have our life extended due to scientists’ noble efforts.

A Hearty Thank You!
Billy Woodard, Founder and Author
Author of Scientists Greater Than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the Twentieth Century

Books About the Scientist
Gertrude Elion: Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology and Medicine (Women Hall of Famers in Mathematics and Science). (Ages 9-12) Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. By Jennifer Macbain.
St. Pierre, Stephanie. Gertrude Elion: Master Chemist (Masters of Invention). Rourke Pub Group, 1993. By St. Pierre.

1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine
And at Least 10 Other Awards

Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
Nobel Prize Award Biography
National Women's Hall of Fame Profile
Gertrude Elion's Wikipedia Page