Gertrude Elion (Wikimedia Commons)
Gertrude Elion, who won a Nobel for pharmacological inventions despite not having a doctorate. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
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January 23, 1918, is the birthdate of Gertrude Belle Elion, the American-born biochemist and pharmacologist who helped develop some of the most important drugs of the 20th century, and won a Nobel Prize for her efforts - although she never even finished her Ph.D.

Elion’s life story is a classic example of the difficulties that were faced by women who wanted to work in science in the first half of the 20th century. Without unusual tenacity, and unusual luck – both good and bad – it’s unlikely she would have accomplished what she did.

She was born in New York to immigrant parents: Robert Elion, a Lithuanian-born dentist, and the former Bertha Cohen, a Russian-born housewife.

At 15, Elion watched as her grandfather suffered a painful death from stomach cancer; she resolved then to devote her life to finding a cure for cancer. With her parents’ encouragement, she studied chemistry at Hunter College in New York, graduating with top honors in 1937.

Following graduation, however, Elion could neither find the funding that would allow her to continue her studies nor could she land a research job. She recounted years later to the Academy of Achievement how she would sit for interviews and then be told outright, “’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 would have been so busy working that -- you know.”

Pickle acid tester

For a time she went to secretarial school, before taking a job for the A&P supermarket chain as a food analyst – checking the acidity of pickles and the color of mayonnaise. In 1941, she earned a master’s degree at New York University and eventually, in 1944, after the United States had entered World War II and the job market opened more to women, she was hired by the research division of drug company Burroughs Wellcome, where she spent the rest of her career.

Her good luck was in being hired by George H. Hitchings, becoming his partner over the next 40 years in the development of drugs used to treat herpes (acyclovir), malaria (pyrimethamine), rheumatoid arthritis (azathioprine) and leukemia (6-mercaptopurine) among others disease, and to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients. In their research, Elion, Hitchings and their teams pioneered the design of compounds that would disable the pathogens they were fighting without damaging the healthy cells around them.

For their inventions and conceptual advances (which also led to the invention, after their retirement, of AZT, used to treat AIDS), they shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1988, along with James Black, who, separately, had developed beta blockers.

Elion’s tragically bad luck was that her boyfriend and fiancé, Leonard Kanter, became ill in 1941 with acute bacterial endocarditis, and died six months later. After that, she never married or had children, and devoted herself almost completely to her work. She was convinced, however, that no employer would have kept her on had she had her own family.

Elion moved with Burroughs Wellcome (today part of GlaxoSmithKline) in 1973 to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She died there on February 21, 1999.