Gertrude Belle Elion

Elion, Gertrude Belle (1918-1999) was an American biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1988 for the development of the antiviral drug acyclovir for the treatment of cancer. Elion shared the Nobel Prize with American chemist George Herbert Hitchings, Jr., and British pharmacologist James Black. Elion also discovered the leukemia-fighting drug 6-mercaptop-urine and drugs that facilitated kidney transplants.

Elion was born in New York City on Jan. 23, 1918. She was the daughter of immigrants. Her father was from Lithuania, and her mother was from Russia. Elion graduated from high school at the age of 15. In 1937, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. degree from Hunter College. the women's section of the City College of New York In 1941, she graduated summa cum laude from New York University with an M.S. degree in chemistry.


In 1944, the British pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome Company (now Glaxo Wellcome), hired Elion. She worked at their subsidiary, Wellcome Research Laboratories, in Tuckahoe, New York. There she teamed withHitchings. They compared the functioning of normal human cells with that of bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells in order to find ways to inhibit or kill harmful invading cells without damaging healthy cells. Elion and Hitchings focused on how the cells synthesize the building blocks of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) called nucleotides. They were able to block the production of new DNA in harmful cells. This stopped the cells from multiplying.

Elion received the Garvan medal in 1968, and in 1991, President George H. W. Bush presented her with the National Medal of Science. She retired from Burroughs Wellcome in 1983, but stayed on as consultant and scientist emeritus. She also continued her work toward the advancement of science through the World Health Organization, honorary university lectureships, and medical research assistance to students. She had 45 patents to her name. She died on Feb. 21, 1999.