Scientist Spotlight: Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion, daughter of a dentist, was born in New York City and raised in the Bronx. As a child she had an “insatiable thirst for knowledge” and enjoyed all of her school classes the same. This left her in a difficult position to decide on a major in college.  Seeing her grandfather suffer and die of cancer was a big factor that influenced her decision to study chemistry at Hunter College in 1933.

Because of the Great Depression, which was ongoing during her college years, Gertrude could not attend graduate school. At the time of her graduation, few jobs were available and the lab positions that were available were not open to women. After a short teaching job at the New York Hospital School of Nursing, Gertrude ended up working as a lab assistant with a chemist. She knew she would not be paid but thought the experience itself worthwhile. Gertrude did end up with a salary, however, and was able to enter graduate school at New York University. She was the only female in the graduate chemistry class but no one seemed to mind or consider it strange. After completing her courses and necessary research work, Gertrude earned her Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1941.

After some laboratory positions, Gertrude pursued her doctorate degree at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, taking classes at night. She was eventually informed she would need to give up her job in order to go to school fill-time. Gertrude decided to stay with her job under George Hitchings and to forgo her schooling. She later believed this decision to have been the right one because she received three honorary degrees from George Washington University, Brown University, and the University of Michigan.

With George, Gertrude expanded her area expertise from organic chemistry to biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, and virology. Together the developed various new drugs effective against leukemia, gout, malaria, along with other ailments. George and Gertrude’s method was different than that of other scientists because instead of trial and error, they examined the differences in biochemistry between “normal human cells and those of cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens (disease-causing agents).”

Gertrude was frequently promoted and served as Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy from 1967 until her retirement in 1983. She served on boards for the National Cancer Institute in addition to many other health organizations.

In 1991, Gertrude received a National Medal of Science and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She shares the 1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with George Hitchings and Sir James Black.

To learn more about Gertrude:


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