Paving the way for women in science: Nobel Laureate Gertrude Elion

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Gertrude Elion (1918-1999) received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988, one of the few women to receive the honor. Her pioneering work included the first chemotherapy drug for childhood leukemia; laying the groundwork for the AZT drug for AIDS; and creating both the first successful anti-viral medication and the first effective immunosuppressant for organ transplants. Her tenacity and desire to help others motivated her to overcome the anti-Semitism and gender discrimination she faced among academics and prospective employers.

A New York City native, Elion enjoyed a happy childhood and a close-knit family. Her father, a dentist, was a Lithuanian immigrant, and her mother emigrated from a region in Russia that was later part of Poland. Although she was interested in many subjects as a student, the death of her grandfather prompted her to study chemistry at Hunter College. She later wrote, “One of the deciding factors may have been that my grandfather, whom I loved dearly, died of cancer when I was 15. I was highly motivated to do something that might eventually lead to a cure for this terrible disease.”

“I hadn’t been aware that any doors were closed to me until I started knocking on them.”

Although it was uncommon for women to attend college at the time, Elion’s parents were fully supportive. She attributed their attitude to their Jewish heritage: “Among immigrant Jews,” Elion recounted, “their one way to success was education, and they wanted all their children to be educated. … [I]t’s a Jewish tradition. The person you admired most was the person with the most education.”

After graduating summa cum laude from Hunter College in 1937, Elion was surprised that not one of the 15 graduate schools to which she applied would admit her with funding for a chemistry Ph.D. The departments unapologetically favored male students. It was an entirely different experience from her all-women’s college, where the faculty had encouraged Elion and the 75 other chemistry students in her class to pursue careers in science.

Gertrude Elion at her lab. (Wikimedia)

Gertrude Elion at her lab. (Wikimedia)

The graduate schools weren’t the only ones to discriminate against women: Elion faced similar prejudice when applying for jobs in laboratories, which were also the exclusive domain of men at the time. “I hadn’t been aware that any doors were closed to me until I started knocking on them,” she later recounted.

After a brief effort at secretarial school, Elion finally obtained short-term work as a laboratory assistant. When that position ended, she volunteered at a chemistry lab, where the president frequently goaded her with anti-Semitic jokes. She went on to other jobs, including one as a high school teacher. With the money she earned, Eliot obtained her Master’s degree in chemistry at New York University in 1941.

But the same year, tragedy struck again in her private life. Her fiancé, Leonard Canter, developed a heart infection called acute bacterial endocarditis, and later died of the disease. In her sorrow, Elion focused on her work with renewed vigor, later recalling her increased impetus to find cures for diseases: “It reinforced in my mind the importance of scientific discovery, that it really was a matter of life and death to find treatments for diseases that hadn’t been cured before.”

Eventually, Elion found a worthy professional mentor in George Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome pharmaceutical company (later called GlaxoSmithKline). She started as his lab assistant, which led to a decades-long collaboration. As Elion’s stature grew in the scientific community, she was promoted to high positions in the company. Her work with Hitchings was productive and ground-breaking. Unlike other drug researchers, the pair approached their remedies by observing how cells function and react, instead of merely testing by trial-and-error. Their methodology focused on disrupting the DNA in cancer cells and microbes, and preventing them from replicating without damaging healthy cells. Their discoveries led to a host of revolutionary drugs.

Still yearning to obtain her doctoral degree, Elion began a part-time Ph.D. program at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where she commuted after work. However, after a few years, the university gave her an ultimatum to either quit her job and attend full-time, or resign from the program. They refused to make any accommodations for her, despite the valuable contributions she was making to the field.

“We get letters from people all the time, from children who are living with leukemia. And you can’t beat the feeling that you get from those children.”

Elion said that the quandary was a pivotal point in her life: “I made what was then a critical decision in my life, to stay with my job and give up the pursuit of a doctorate. Years later, when I received three honorary doctorate degrees … I decided that perhaps that decision had been the right one after all. Unfortunately, neither of my parents lived to see this recognition.”

Although Elion regretted she was forced to withdraw, she was nonetheless pleased with the discoveries she was making at her lab. One of her greatest achievements was the synthesis of 6-Mercaptopurine, or 6-MP, in 1950. Prior to that, half of children suffering from acute leukemia died within months of contracting the disease. When used with other medicines, Elion’s synthesis of 6-MP resulted in an eighty percent cure rate in childhood leukemia. Elion was particularly proud of being able to help young cancer victims. She later said, “We get letters from people all the time, from children who are living with leukemia. And you can’t beat the feeling that you get from those children.”

Together with her colleagues at Burroughs Wellcome, Elion developed the first immunosuppressant drug that made organ transplants possible. She also created acyclovir (Zovirax), the first successful anti-viral drug.  Acyclovir was her “final jewel” that laid the foundation for the anti-AIDs drug AZT, which was released shortly after her retirement.

“What greater joy can you have than to know what an impact your work has had on people’s lives?”

Elion’s reaction to the news of her Nobel Prize in Medicine was characteristically gracious: “[W]hen the Nobel Prize came in, everybody said, ‘How does it feel to get the Nobel Prize?’ And I said, ‘It’s very nice but that’s not what it’s all about.’ I’m not belittling the prize. The prize has done a lot for me, but if it hadn’t happened, it wouldn’t have made that much difference. … When you meet someone who has lived for 25 years with a kidney graft, there’s your reward.”

In her retirement, Elion served as a mentor to young scientists, many of whom were women whose career paths were facilitated by her accomplishments. “In a sense,” Elion observed, “my career appears to have come full circle from my early days of being a teacher to now sharing my experience in research with the new generations of scientists.”

As a pioneering woman in science whose landmark discoveries resulted in multiple cures, Gertrude Elion’s legacy endures today. As she once said, “What greater joy can you have than to know what an impact your work has had on people’s lives?”

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].