Gertrude B. Elion


Gertrude B. Elion was a pioneer in drug research who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988. A leading American chemist and pharmacologist, she changed the face of medicine and was the holder of 45 patents. Among her key discoveries were the drugs acyclovir, used for treating herpes, and Pyrimethamine for malaria, which rank among the top medical advancements of the 20th century.


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Where was Gertrude Elion born?

Gertrude Elion was born in New York on Jan. 23, 1918 to immigrant parents. She spent her early youth in Manhattan, where her father worked as a dentist. After the birth of her brother, the family located to the Bronx. While her father emigrated from Lithuania her mother was from Poland, which was a part of Russia at that time.

After she lost her grandfather to stomach cancer, she decided to go to Hunter College at an age of 15 and graduated with highest honors in chemistry at the age of 19.

Since she was a woman, it became difficult for her to find employment in chemical industry in 1930s. She took a part-time job as a laboratory assistant in biochemistry and taught in the New York City school system before earning a master’s degree in chemistry at New York University in 1941.

Though she never received a Ph.D. degree due to her father’s financial constraints, she was later bestowed doctorate honorary degrees from Polytechnic University of New York and an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Harvard University.

When did Gertrude Elion Receive Nobel Prize?

Gertrude B.Elion won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988. She shared the award with a fellow American George H. Hitchings and a Briton James Black in recognition of the trio’s work which helped create drugs to treat such diseases as leukemia, malaria, AIDS, gout and herpes. Hitchings was her colleague of about 40 years. Though Elion had only a master’s degree, she went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Groundbreaking Research

In 1944 Elion joined Burroughs-Wellcome Research Laboratories (now GlaxoSmithKline) in Research Triangle Park, New York city where she worked until her retirement in 1983. Here she started her research career under George Hitchings.   Both of them developed a series of revolutionary drugs such as acyclovir, azathioprine, allopurinol and pyrimethamine.

Awards and Accolades

Elion received many awards in her lifetime for her immense contribution to the field of medicine. Among the many other honours she received, the Garvan-Olin Medal (1968), the National Medal of Science (1991) and Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award (1997) are prominent. She also comes lauded as the first woman to be named in the prestigious National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron.

Personal Life

Elion never married. She was universally liked for her warmth and courtesy and respected for her work.
Gertrude Elion died on February 21, 1999, at the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.