Royal Society of Biology logo Gertrude B Elion Research chemist Heritage Lottery Fund logo Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council logo

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Gertrude B Elion

23 January 1919
21 February 1999 (age 80)

Gertrude Elion saw her grandfather die of cancer when she was 15 years old, and this was the ‘turning point’ in her life which made her decide to study science in order to search for a cure for cancer.

Elion studied for her first degree in Chemistry with distinction from a free college in New York, and graduated when she was just 19.  She could not afford a postgraduate degree and was denied the funding to study for one as she was considered to be a ‘distraction’ for the male students. Elion worked in many jobs, tried her hand at teaching and also worked in the chemical industry, while she saved money to pursue a part-time master’s degree in chemistry.

Elion’s fiancé died of a bacterial infection in the 1940s, and it was later discovered that penicillin could have saved his life. This further spurred Elion on in her pursuit of working within pharmaceutical research.

The second world war created more opportunities for women in industry, and Elion obtained some quality-control jobs in food and consumer product companies before being hired at the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome.

She joined the company as a senior research chemist in 1944, and worked on developing chemotherapy drugs to interfere with the metabolic pathways in cancer cells without damaging normal body cells. In 1954, Elion announced and developed the leukaemia-fighting drug 6-mercaptopurine. Her research also contributed to the first treatment against herpes, and to an anti-organ rejection drug.

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.

Gertrude B. Elion

In 1988, she was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with George Hitchings and Sir James Black. She was also awarded the National Medal of Science in 1991 and also became the first woman in science join the National Inventors Hall of Fame. She was granted the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997

She held 45 patents and was awarded 23 honorary degrees. Elion admitted that her work was her life, but she enjoyed photography, travelling, the opera, ballet and theatre. She never married.