Women in Medical Science: Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion was born January 23, 1918 in New York City. In school, she enjoyed and excelled in all of her classes, but when it came time to choose a major for college, a family experience led her choice.

In 1937, Gertrude graduated from Hunter College with a degree in chemistry. Upon graduation, Elion began studying at New York University in the evenings and on weekends, while substitute teaching in New York City Public Schools during the day. She taught physics, chemistry, and other sciences. In 1941 she obtained her Master of Science in the field of chemistry.

By this time, World War II had begun and there was a shortage of chemists in industrial laboratories. Although I was finally able to get a job in a laboratory, it was not in research. I did analytical quality control work for a major food company. After a year and a half, during which I learned a good deal about instrumentation, I became restless because the work was so repetitive and I was no longer learning anything. I applied to employment agencies for a research job, and was chosen to go to a laboratory at Johnson and Johnson in New Jersey. Unfortunately, that laboratory was disbanded after about six months. At that time I was offered a number of positions in research laboratories but the one which intrigued me most was a position as assistant to George Hitchings. – Getrude Elion

In this position, Elion expanded her expertise from solely chemistry to pharmacology, immunology, and other relevant sciences.

Elion and Hitchings in their laboratory.
Elion and Hitchings in their laboratory.

During this period, Elion was also working to get her doctorate by going to school at night at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. After several years of commuting to night classes, Elion was told she could no longer attend part-time, and must study full-time to obtain her doctorate. It was at this time that she decided to abandon her doctorate studies and remain at her job.

Gertrude 3

Throughout her career, Elion took part in developing treatments for several ailments, like leukemia, cancer, gout, and malaria. Later in her career, she assisted in the adaptation of AZT, a drug used to treat AIDS. She went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Medicine alongside George Hitchings and received honorary doctorate degrees from George Washington University, Brown University, and the University of Michigan.

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