Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999)

Gertrude Belle Elion (January 23, 1918 – February 21, 1999) was an American biochemist and pharmacologist, who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black. Working alone as well as with Hitchings and Black, Elion developed a multitude of new drugs, using innovative research methods that would later lead to the development of the AIDS drug AZT.

Elion was born in New York City, to Lithuanian immigrant parents Bertha (Cohen) and Robert Elion, a dentist. When she was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, instilling in her a desire to do all she could to try and cure the disease. She graduated from Hunter College in 1937 with a degree in Chemistry and New York University (M.Sc.) in 1941, while working as a high school teacher during day time. Unable to obtain a graduate research position, she worked as a supermarket product supervisor, and for a food lab in New York, testing the acidity of pickles and the color of egg yolk going into mayonnaise. Later, she left to work as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company (now GlaxoSmithKline).

She began to go to night school at New York University Tandon School of Engineering ( then Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute), but after several years of long range commuting, she was informed that she would no longer be able to continue her doctorate on a part-time basis, but would need to give up her job and go to school full-time. Elion made what was then a critical decision in her life, to stay with her job and give up the pursuit of a doctorate. She never obtained a formal Ph.D., but was later awarded an honorary Ph.D from New York University Tandon School of Engineering (then Polytechnic University of New York) in 1989 and honorary SD degree from Harvard university in 1998.

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