INVENTOR OF LIFESAVING DRUGS
HONORED FOR LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT
Gertrude Elion Recognized by Lemelson-MIT
NEW YORK, NY (April 9, 1997) — Nobel Prize-winning
chemist and New York City native Gertrude Elion, now of Chapel Hill,
NC, has been named the 1997 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement
Award by the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program, administered by the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. Elion helped create two of the first successful
drugs to combat acute leukemia (Purinethol® and Thioguanine®)
and holds 45 patents for discovering numerous lifesaving drugs from
1944 to 1983. More than half a million transplant patients in the
last 34 years have benefited from her team's discovery of azathioprine
(Imuran®), which prevents the body from rejecting foreign tissue.
The announcement was made today at the New York Academy of Sciences
in New York City by Professor Lester C. Thurow, internationally
renowned economist of MIT's Sloan School of Management and chairman
of the Lemelson-MIT Prize Board, which oversees the selection process.
Elion will be honored at a ceremony the evening of April 10 at the
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (Washington, DC)
for her contributions to American invention and innovation.
Independent inventor Dr. Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy,
established the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program at MIT in 1994 to recognize
the nation's most talented contemporary inventors in order to promote
positive role models for American youngsters. The Program's Lifetime
Achievement Award honors individuals for career-long accomplishments
"She deserves acclaim not only for her achievements as a research
chemist but also for her devoted and inspirational mentoring of
young students, and especially young women," said Charles M.
Vest, president of MIT. Thurow called Elion, "a national hero
— she has improved our quality of life in the most direct
way — by fighting diseases."
Elion was inspired to combat fatal diseases and infections after
her beloved grandfather died from cancer and losing her fiancé
to a bacterial infection. Elion graduated from New York's Hunter
College in 1937, when opportunities for women scientists were scarce.
"When I first began my career I was told that I would be a
distracting influence in the lab, " Elion recalls. "If
young women think it is hard for females in the sciences nowadays,
they should have seen it 50 years ago." Until the door to the
science world opened for her, Elion worked as a receptionist and
taught nurses and high school students.
As a Lifetime Achievement Award winner Elion said, "This Award
proves the power of perseverance and belief in oneself. I want to
get sick people well and that's what I've done." Her history
is a digest of groundbreaking discoveries that revolutionized the
field of scientific research all the more striking because
Elion never received a PhD.
In 1944 Johnson & Johnson hired Elion for her first job in
true scientific research; however the unit closed six months later.
That same year she embarked on her 40 year-long legendary career
at Burroughs Wellcome (now Glaxo Wellcome). Working alongside biochemist
Dr. George Hitchings, Elion and he created the first false DNA blocks
that interrupted the growth of cancer cells, bacteria, parasites
By the 1950s and '60s, Elion's team realized numerous breakthroughs
that challenged accepted theories in the scientific community, developing
acyclovir (Zovirax®), the first medication that safely blocks
a virus, and allopurinol (Zyloric® or Zyloprim®), an effective
treatment for gout and some of the side effects of chemotherapy.
Although not involved in the discovery, her former team, following
her research methods, developed the world's first medicine for AIDS.
A scientist of international acclaim, Elion shared the 1988 Nobel
Prize in medicine with colleague George Hitchings, and researcher
Sir James Black, for her discoveries of treatments for acute leukemia,
malaria, bacterial infections, herpes, gout, autoimmune diseases
and transplant rejection. She is one of only ten women awarded the
Nobel in science and one of the few recipients in science to win
without a doctorate.
Today, at age 79, Elion remains committed to encouraging young
scientists and inventors through her mentorship to medical students,
lectureships, scholarships for young chemists, and her involvement
in national and international committees, including the World Health
The Lifetime Achievement Award is part of the Lemelson-MIT Prize
Program, which also bestows the Lemelson-MIT Prize, an annual, $500,000
award — the world's largest single prize for invention and
innovation — to a United States citizen or permanent resident
(or qualified team of two) who demonstrates excellence in creativity,
invention and/or innovation in medicine and health care; energy
and environment; telecommunication and computing; and consumer products,
durable goods and industrial products. Last year's Lifetime Achievement
Award recipient was Wilson Greatbatch, inventor of the implantable
cardiac pacemaker and pacemaker batteries. The first winners of
the Lifetime Achievement Awards were William Hewlett and David Packard,
co-founders of Hewlett-Packard Corp.
Read more about Gertrude Elion.
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