Gertrude Elion

This week’s WiSE Wonder Woman is Gertrude Elion! Gertrude, a born and raised NYC girl, received her Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Hunter College in 1937. Gertrude believed that had it not been for Hunter College’s free program, she would not have been able to pursue higher education. An all­girls college at the time, Hunter provided Gertrude with the camaraderie and confidence she needed to continue in the sciences. However, few laboratory research positions were available to women in 1937 and so after graduating, she began teaching Biochemistry at the New York Hospital School of Nursing. She eventually gained an unpaid position as a chemistry laboratory assistant. Gertrude entered the Master's program in Chemistry at NYU in 1939 and was the only female in her class. Several years after receiving her Master’s, she began a PhD program at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute but was unable to continue as she needed to work to support herself. She instead took a position in George Hitchings’ laboratory. Hitching allowed Gertrude to pursue her biochemical interests and take on more laboratory responsibility despite her not having a PhD. She worked on designing drugs that would kill reproduction of particular pathogens without harming the host cell. Among her many discoveries are: Purinethol ­­- the first treatment for leukemia, Imuran -­­ the first immuno­suppressant used in organ transplants, and Daraprim ­­ - for treatment of Malaria. She moved on to serve as head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs Wellcome in 1967 and eventually oversaw the development of Azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug treatment for AIDS. Elion and Hitchings shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology with Sir James Black in 1988. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, became a member of the Institute of Medicine, and received the National Medal of Science, Lemelson­MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, and Garvin Olin Medal. Gertrude died in North Carolina in 1999, but her most famous quote still inspires female scientists. “Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Don’t let others discourage you or tell you that you can’t do it. In my day I was told women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t."

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