All achievers

Gertrude B. Elion, M.Sc.

Nobel Prize in Medicine

I was very close to my grandfather because he came over from Europe when I was about three years old, and lived very close to us. And, I watched him die, essentially, in the hospital. And that made a tremendous impression on me. I decided that nobody should suffer that much.

Gertrude Elion, at age three-and-a-half, with her mother.

Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City. Her father had immigrated from Lithuania, her mother from Russian-ruled Poland, while both were barely in their teens. Mr. Elion became a dentist, and for her first seven years young Gertrude lived with her parents in a small apartment adjoining her father’s dental office. After the arrival of her younger brother, the family moved to more spacious quarters in the Bronx, where they prospered through the 1920s. While Gertrude’s mother attended to her baby brother, Gertrude spent more time with a grandfather newly arrived from Europe. She enjoyed school and looked forward to pursuing a college education. The stock market crash of 1929 wrecked the family’s finances, and in 1933, the family suffered another blow, with the death from cancer of Gertrude’s beloved grandfather. Elion graduated from high school at age 15, but with her father’s savings wiped out, her educational choices were limited. Fortunately she was accepted at Hunter College, the women’s college of the City University of New York, which offered free tuition to qualified students. Still grieving for her grandfather, she decided to study chemistry, with the hope of contributing to the fight against cancer. Entering Hunter College that fall, Elion graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in chemistry when she was only 19.

1933: Gertrude Elion, at age 15. Her grandfather’s death from cancer instilled in her a desire to cure the disease.

The ongoing financial hardship imposed by the Great Depression of the 1930s kept Elion from pursuing graduate studies immediately, but in her first years after college, she had difficulty finding work as a chemist. There were few women working in the field, and many laboratories refused to hire women altogether. She eventually found short-term work teaching biochemistry at New York Hospital School of Nursing, but when the assignment ended after three months she found herself unemployed again. Rather than remain idle, she accepted an unpaid position as laboratory assistant to gain experience and was eventually hired full-time. Although she was only paid $20 a week, she managed to save some money, and with the help of her parents was able to pursue graduate studies at New York University, where she was the only female student in her chemistry classes. Having completed the course work for her master’s degree, Elion taught science in the New York City public schools while completing her graduate research project.  She received her degree in 1941, just as World War II was drawing more men out of industry and into the military. Although the year brought new opportunities, it also brought devastating loss with the death from infectious disease of the man Elion had hoped to marry. Had the first antibiotics been discovered a few years earlier, her life might have taken a different course.

1948: Gertrude Elion and Dr. George Hitchings in the laboratory at Burroughs-Wellcome. Elion worked as an assistant to Hitchings. Hitchings was using a new way of developing drugs, by imitating natural compounds instead of through trial and error. Hitchings believed that if he could trick cancer cells into accepting artificial compounds for growth, they could be destroyed without also destroying normal cells. Elion began to work with purines, and in 1950, she developed the anti-cancer drugs thioguanine and purinethol. (Wellcome Foundation)

Elion found work and valuable experience as a chemist at a food company, and at Johnson and Johnson, but neither job fulfilled her financial needs or her ambition. On a tip from her dentist father, she paid a visit to the Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company in the nearby village of Tuckahoe, New York. She was hired as an assistant to Dr. George Hitchings, who ran a small laboratory at Burroughs Wellcome. Beginning on that day in 1944, she embarked on a 40-year scientific partnership with Dr. Hitchings, who encouraged her to take on progressively more responsibility. While living in the Bronx and working in Tuckahoe, Elion commuted to Brooklyn Polytechnic, where she was pursuing her Ph.D. in chemistry.

Gertrude B. Elion working in the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical laboratory in Tuckahoe, New York.

She was willing to endure the grueling commute, but when the faculty at Brooklyn insisted she quit her job to study full-time, she balked. To her surprise, Dr. Hitchings assured her she could advance in a rewarding research career without a doctorate. She suspended her studies and remained at Burroughs Wellcome. His advice would prove to be even sounder than they imagined. Hitchings and Elion set themselves an unorthodox course, attempting to create new medicines by studying the chemical composition of disease cells.  At the time little was known about the biosynthesis of nucleic acids, and the enzymes associated with the process. Elion focused on the purines, a category of organic compounds found in high concentration in organ meats, and in some fish and vegetables. In the mid-1950s, breakthroughs in biochemistry greatly facilitated Elion’s work. Within a few years, the approach Hitchings and Elion had taken bore fruit with the development of the first two successful drugs for the treatment of acute leukemia: Purinethol and Thioguanine.

Gertrude B. Elion, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Elion was a member of one of the greatest drug-discovery partnerships in the history of medicine. The other member was George Hitchings, a biochemist 12 years her senior, who hired her as an assistant, gave “leeway to her talent, and pulled her along in his own ascent.”

Elion’s responsibilities expanded, and she began to lead larger and larger teams of her own, discovering compounds such as allopurinol, used for the treatment of gout and to relieve the side effects of chemotherapy. Her discovery of azathioprine, which suppresses the immune system’s rejection of foreign tissue, made kidney transplants between unrelated donors possible. More than half a million people worldwide have benefited from this discovery since 1963.

October 1988: Medical researchers Gertrude B. Elion and George Hitchings after winning Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Over the years, Elion’s explorations had expanded from her original background in organic chemistry to encompass biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, and finally virology. In 1967, she was named Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs Wellcome. Over the following decade, Elion’s team at Burroughs Wellcome entered a field which pharmaceutical companies had previously shunned. They attempted to create compounds which would block viral infections. It was widely believed that any compound capable of suppressing viral activity would be hopelessly toxic. Elion’s patience was rewarded with the creation of acyclovir, the world’s first successful anti-viral medication. It is often used in the treatment of chicken pox, herpes and shingles.

1988: George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion at the time of their Nobel Prize triumph. With Britain’s Sir James Black, Elion and Hitchings were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine, for their work together in the field of drug research. Their presence “represented a triumph over many obstacles. Elion overcame the crucial handicap of gender, which has sunk many a female scientist, and the lack of a Ph.D. Elion and Hitchings had each persevered through the Great Depression when jobs in science were particularly scarce. Perhaps more crucial, the Nobel had been given very rarely to employees of pharmaceutical companies. So apparently reluctant was the Nobel Committee to recognize their commercial research, that the prize came almost 30 years after most of the team’s discoveries.”

Gertrude Elion’s name appears on 45 patents. Although she officially retired in 1983, she remained active in the scientific world, as a consultant with her old firm, which became Glaxo Wellcome and is now part of GlaxoSmithKline. That same year, she became President of the American Association for Cancer Research. She also served for many years as an advisor to the National Cancer Institute and to the World Health Organization (WHO), including a term as Chairman of the WHO Steering Committee on the Chemotherapy of Malaria.

1988: Gertrude B. Elion receives the Nobel Prize for Medicine from Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Elion was the only female recipient on the stage at the gala ceremonies in Stockholm. Dressed in royal blue chiffon, she was “a flash of brilliance among the starched white evening shirts and the formal black suits of the others.”

In 1988, she shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with her old colleague George Hitchings and fellow researcher Sir James Black. At the time, she was one of only ten women to have won a Nobel Prize in the sciences, and one of the very few recipients to earn a science Nobel without a doctorate. By that time, she had received honorary doctorates from a number of universities, including Brooklyn Polytechnic, which had urged her to leave her job at Burroughs Wellcome so many years before. Among the many commitments she maintained in her later years, Gertrude Elion served as a Research Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at Duke University, guiding third-year medical students through research in tumor biochemistry and pharmacology. In 1991, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and was presented with the National Medal of Science by President George H.W. Bush.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1989

“I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of stomach cancer. I decided that nobody should suffer that much.”

Young Gertrude Elion’s ambition to find new medicines led her to the study of chemistry, but when she graduated from college, she found it almost impossible to find a job in the field. Most employers at that time would not hire a woman to perform scientific work. Gertrude Elion refused to be deterred. She worked wherever she could, often for little or no money, until at last she found a stable position at Burroughs Wellcome, where she was allowed to fulfill her potential as a scientist.

In time, her discoveries were to win her the Nobel Prize for Medicine, although she was not a medical doctor and had never received a doctorate in her own field. Drugs she developed or discovered have been successful in treating leukemia and have enabled kidney patients to receive transplants from unrelated donors. She led the team that developed acyclovir, the first successful anti-viral medication. Over a million men and women around the world owe their lives to Gertrude Elion’s patient determination.

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Reading about your career, I was struck by a sense that you had a clear vision of what you wanted to do at a fairly young age. When did you first know?

Gertrude Elion: I didn’t really know until I was 15 years old.

Keys to success — Vision

I liked everything in school. I enjoyed learning things, but I had no specific bent towards science until my grandfather, who died — that summer — of stomach cancer. And I had been trying to decide what I was going to study in college — I was just about to enter college — and decided that I really have finally an aim in life. I was going to do something about cancer. Well, that meant I had to take a science, and so it was either chemistry or biology, and I decided on chemistry. So it was really very clear in my mind from then on what I wanted to do. How I was going to get there I wasn’t so sure of.

Were you very close to that grandfather?

Keys to success — Passion

Gertrude Elion: I was very close to (my grandfather) because he came over from Europe when I was about three years old, and lived very close to us, and used to take me to the park and tell me stories. And when my brother was born, about two years later, he spent more time with me while my mother was busy with the baby, and so we got to be very close. And also, I watched him die, essentially, in the hospital. And that made a terrific impression on me. I decided that nobody should suffer that much.

Gertrude Elion with her grandfather, grandmother, and Aunt Anna. When she was 15, her grandfather died of cancer, instilling in her a desire to cure the disease. She went on to graduate with a master’s degree in chemistry from NYU while working as a high school teacher.

A lot of people feel that way watching their relatives die, but you were motivated to act on the feeling.

Gertrude Elion: It was a critical time in my life, when this happened, because I was just leaving high school. I had to make some sort of decision about my future. It was so dramatic that it made an impression at that critical moment. If it had happened earlier, perhaps it wouldn’t have.

When you realized that this would involve studying chemistry, biology, that sort of thing, did you have an immediate aptitude for it? Did you enjoy it?

Gertrude Elion: I enjoyed chemistry tremendously. In fact, I debated between chemistry and biology and I decided that I really didn’t like to dissect things, so I took chemistry. But once I started it, I found it absolutely fascinating.

Were you aware at the time that you were striking out in an unusual direction for a woman?

Gertrude Elion: It didn’t occur to me that it was an unusual direction at the time. I realized very soon after I got out of college, when nobody wanted to hire me, that it was an unusual direction. At the time it was just “learn what you have to learn, and as much as you can, and don’t think about whether it’s the right direction or wrong direction for a woman.”

Keys to success — Perseverance

Gertrude Elion: It really wasn’t until I got out of college and started looking for a job. And it really hit me because I had done well in school, graduated summa cum laude, and I thought, well, you know, there is no reason somebody won’t give me a try. But wherever I went — it was a Depression time, it was a time that there weren’t many jobs to begin with, and what there were, they couldn’t see any reason to take a woman. They would interview me for long periods of time, but then they would say, “Well, we think you’d be a distracting influence in the laboratory.” Well, I guess I was kind of cute at the age of 19, but I can’t imagine that I would have been a distracting influence. I would have been so busy working that — you know. But anyway, it was very discouraging.

Eventually you were hired at Burroughs-Wellcome. Who gave you that break, and why?

Gertrude Elion: Dr. George Hitchings, with whom I continued to work all the years thereafter. He was in the biochemistry department at Burroughs-Wellcome. It was a very small laboratory. He had one assistant; they told him he could hire a second one, and I just turned up out of the blue. My father was a dentist, and he had samples of some pain medication that Burroughs-Wellcome made, and he said, “You know, Tuckahoe, New York is not very far from where we live. Why don’t you see if they have a job?” I called them up and they said they had some openings. So on a Saturday morning I went up there, was interviewed by Dr. Hitchings, and a week later he offered me the job. I had a little experience by then. I had my master’s degree in organic chemistry. His other assistant was a woman, by the way. He was one of these unusual people that didn’t care whether it was a man or a woman, and gave us equal opportunity. I was very fortunate that he happened to be there that Saturday morning, because they worked on alternate Saturdays. It would have been someone else on the next Saturday.

You might not be sitting here today.

Gertrude Elion: That’s right. I’m quite sure.

1948: Gertrude Elion and Dr. George Hitchings in the laboratory at Burroughs-Wellcome. Elion worked as an assistant to Hitchings. Hitchings was using a new way of developing drugs, by imitating natural compounds instead of through trial and error. Hitchings believed that if he could trick cancer cells into accepting artificial compounds for growth, they could be destroyed without also destroying normal cells. Elion began to work with purines, and in 1950, she developed the anti-cancer drugs thioguanine and purinethol. (Wellcome Foundation)

You didn’t have a Ph.D., and yet you got hired for this pretty prestigious job.

Gertrude Elion: It wasn’t very prestigious at the time. I was making the magnificent sum of $50 a week, and I was expected to do what I was told. I was told to make certain compounds, look it up in the library, see how it was done, and so on. I also started work on my Ph.D. at that time.

I started going at night out to Brooklyn, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. For two years, I went three nights a week from Westchester County, all the way out to Brooklyn, back to the Bronx where I lived. And I was happily thinking, “Well, in about ten years, I’ll have my doctorate.” Then the dean said, “No, you can’t do that, because we want you to come full-time. If you are serious about it, you will give up your job.” And I said, “No way. I’m not going to give up that job. It’s the one I’ve really been looking for.” I discussed it with Dr. Hitchings, and he said, “You don’t need to get a doctorate. You can do it all without.” I’m not sure I believed him at the time, but I decided to take the chance. So I never went back.

eorge Hitchings and Gertrude Elion celebrate one of the ten honorary doctorates she received. In 1988, she received the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Hitchings. In 1991, Elion was awarded the National Medal of Science and became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1997, she received the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award.

Even without your Ph.D., you really already had your ideal job, in terms of what you wanted to accomplish.

Gertrude Elion: Right. The amount of work that I put into it was greater than the amount I might have put into my studies in school. There was nothing to distract me. I could work ten hours a day, seven days a week with no problem. I could work in the lab as long as I wanted. I always took work home. It was my life, it wasn’t just my job.

And now you have racked up quite a few doctorates of your own.

Gertrude Elion: Ten honorary ones, including one from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, which always seems poetic justice.

You describe a very intense work situation. Did you have time for any kind of social life, or other hobbies?

Gertrude Elion: I had time for social life in the early days. I am very fond of music, and a great operagoer and concertgoer. That was my main avocation. I was also very interested in photography, did quite a lot of enlarging and printing.

Keys to success — Passion

I think that my social life really took a hiatus in about 1941 — actually before I went to Burroughs Wellcome — because of the death of someone I loved very much. And after that, I really sort of put myself into my work in a way perhaps that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I might have gotten married, and it just didn’t happen, because the person I was engaged to died of a disease that could have been cured by penicillin, but there was no penicillin. That was another lesson I learned. How important some discoveries could be in life-saving. And years later, you know, thinking back on it, and saying, “If only there had been penicillin.” And it was a good lesson.

How long after that was penicillin discovered?

Gertrude Elion: About four or five years.

It’s done so much to save so many lives. It sounds like your heart was broken.

Gertrude Elion: It really was. It was one of these ideal things, which you think will never happen again. And it usually doesn’t. Some people are inclined to settle for something less, and I wasn’t.

The approach that you and Dr. Hitchings took, studying the chemical composition of disease cells, has had an impact on the treatment of so many different diseases. Was it immediately clear that this would have such far-ranging effects, or was it sort of one at a time?

Golden Plate Awards Council member Gertrude Elion at the American Academy of Achievement’s 1991 “Salute to Excellence” program in New York City. (© Stanley R. Zax)

Gertrude Elion: It was sort of one at a time, but some of it was really serendipity. It was luck. For example, 6-mecaptopurine was the first real hit in acute leukemia of children from our laboratory. Not the first compound, but the second compound that had been discovered to have activity. The children weren’t cured, so we knew we were on the right track, but we weren’t there yet. We knew we were close, because children went into remission for six months or a year, then relapsed. We began to say, “What happens to the drug in the body? Is there something we can do to make it better?” We studied the metabolism of the drug, and we found out that a lot of it was destroyed in the body. So we said, “Let’s try to design a compound that will release this in the leukemic cell, and not harm the other cells. Maybe then it won’t be destroyed as readily.” I spent several years making derivatives. One of these derivatives was as good, but not better, in leukemia.

Just at that time, we got interested in immunology. And we got interested because somebody who had written to us for 6-mecaptopurine looked at it in the immune response in a rabbit, and let us know that it inhibited the immune response. So he came and saw us, and said, “You know, you have some compounds that could be very interesting in immune response.” We listened, and said, “OK. We will set up a screen that will try to determine whether some of these anti-leukemic compounds have activity on the immune response.” And lo and behold, this one compound that I had made which was equivalent in leukemia, was better on the immune response. Then along comes a young surgeon who had read the paper about the rabbit antibody response. And he says, “You know, I tried 6-mecaptopurine on kidney transplants in dogs, and it really prevented the rejection for quite a long time. Do you have anything that might be better?” “Well, we don’t know, but here, take this compound. It looks better in mice.” So he goes off on a fellowship to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, tries it, and finds it definitely is better. And the next thing you know, it’s preventing rejection of kidney transplants in man.

Now, I didn’t start to make a compound that would do that. But if you listen, and keep your mind open, this is what can happen. This was the story of our lives. Because then we were off in the field of kidney transplantation, autoimmune disease, and so on.

You won the Nobel Prize for discovering these principles that underlie so many new drugs. What of your many accomplishments are you most proud of?

Keys to success — The American Dream

Gertrude Elion: I think I’m most proud of the fact that so many of the drugs have really been useful in saving lives. I’ve run into people whose lives have been saved, and the kind of satisfaction that you get from having someone come up and say, “My child had acute leukemia and your drug saved him.” Or, “My little girl had herpes encephalitis, and she is now cured, she is back at school. She is doing very well. People told me that she might be mentally affected, but she is not.” I run into people who have had kidney transplants for 20 years who are still taking the drug. And I don’t think that anything else that happens to you can match that type of satisfaction.