Powerful Ladies of the 80's: Gertrude Elion

29th September 2017

Gertrude B. Elion


One of the nation’s most distinguished research scientists, Gertrude Elion devoted her career to research to combat some of the world's most dangerous diseases.


Gertrude Belle Elion born in New York on January 23, 1918. Her parents are Robert Elion, a Lithuanian immigrant and a dentist, and Bertha Cohen, a Polish immigrant.


Motivated by the death of her grandfather, who died of cancer, Elion entered Hunter College, in New York City, at age 15 and graduated in chemistry at age 19. Elion wanted to pursue a job in science. Although women had a hard time getting a job in science during the Great Depression. She worked as a lab assistant, food analyst, and high school teacher for several years. She worked part-time while working on her master's degree, which she earned in 1941.


She was appointed at the Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories as an assistant to George Hitchings. She enjoyed her time at the laboratory as Hitchings gave her considerable freedom in her research, allowing her to learn as rapidly as she wanted to. Working with Hitchings, she moved from being solely an organic chemist to become involved in microbiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and immunology. She decided to dropped her Ph.D. plans due to increasing work pressure.


Her professional career proved to be a highly successful one. Elion and her team developed drugs to combat leukemia, herpes, and AIDS. They also discovered treatments to reduce the body's rejection of foreign tissue in kidney transplants between unrelated donors. In all, Elion developed 45 patents in medicine and was awarded 23 honorary degrees.


In 1988, Elion received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, together with George Hitchings and Sir James Black. She received other awards for her work, including the National Medal of Science in 1991, and that same year, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1997, she was granted the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award.


Gertrude Elion officially retired in 1983, but she remained active, holding the titles of scientist emeritus and consultant at her old company. She also served as an adviser for the World Health Organization and the American Association for Cancer Research.


Gertrude B. Elion died on February 21, 1999.


Gertrude had to work hard against patriarchal views within the science field to even be accepted to pursue her passion - never give up, every step forward is another step closer.