1997 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
|Photo courtesy of GlaxoWellcome
Powerless to help her grandfather fight cancer and her fiancé
combat a life-threatening bacterial infection, Gertrude "Trudy"
Elion wanted to give all she could to help save the lives of others.
Despite her family's poor financial situation and the limited
options for women in science at that time, Elion pursued a career
in chemistry and research, developing cures for deadly diseases
like cancer and leukemia. In 1997, Elion was honored with the Lemelson-MIT
Lifetime Achievement Award.
During her groundbreaking career in medicine, Elion earned 45 patents.
In the 1950s, she developed 6-mercaptopurine and Thioguaninesuccessful
treatments for leukemia. She also developed Azathioprine, to suppress
the immune system and enable organ transplants; Acyclovir, to treat
the herpes virus; Allopurinal, for use in chemotherapy and to treat
gout; Pyrimethamine, to treat malaria; and Trimethoprim (combined
with sulfa), to work against bacterial infections.
Due to the Depression and forbiddance of women in research, Elion
had a difficult time finding a job. In 1944, she was finally hired
by Burroughs Wellcome (now Glaxo Wellcome) as a senior research
chemist alongside Dr. George Hitchings, who specialized in nucleic
Together, Elion and Hitchings' research methodologystudying
cell reproduction among normal and abnormal cellsearned them
the Nobel Prize in Medicine (1988) and paved the way for the development
of AZT, the first effective drug for treating AIDS.
Elion encouraged and shared her knowledge with aspiring scientists
throughout her career, from helping young women succeed in a male-dominated
field to teaching future generations in her latter years as a Research
Professor at Duke University.
Born in 1918 in New York City, Elion received a B.S. and M.S. in
chemistry from Hunter College (1937) and New York University (1941),
respectively. Though she was never able to finish her doctorate,
she later received four honorary doctorate degrees. After her retirement,
Elion served as Scientist Emeritus and Consultant for Burroughs
Wellcome. She was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors
Hall of Fame (1991) and was also awarded the National Medal of Science
(1991). Elion continued to work in her lab and teach until she died,
in February 1999.
Science to me is almost like a religion. To me, science
is truth and truth is beautiful. Gertrude Elion, in "Me & Isaac Newton"a 1999
feature-length documentary by Michael Apted that delves into the
hearts and minds of seven scientists
Lifeline by The Chemical Heritage Foundation