Gertrude Belle Elion

weili dai
Weili Dai
December 7, 2016
Arianna Huffington
Arianna Huffington
December 1, 2016

Gertrude Belle Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion – Pioneer in Cancer and HIV/AIDS Treatment

Gertrude Belle Elion biochemist and pharmacologist


United States


Medical research in biochemistry and pharmacology


Gertrude B. Elion is an award-winning scientist who lived between 1918 and 1999. Elion is known for her ground-breaking approach to research that later resulted in the creation of AZT, the antiretroviral medication used for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and for developing anti-cancer drugs.

Early Life

Gertrude Belle Elion Early Life Elion was born in 1918 in New York in the United States to Lithuanian and Polish immigrant parents. Elion’s grandfather succumbed to cancer and this made her decide to devote her life to try curing the disease. Elion obtained a degree in chemistry in 1937 at Hunter College and in 1941 a M.Sc. from New York University. Because of the prevalent gender bias of the time, she could not secure a fellowship or a research position and was forced to have several jobs through the years, including working at a supermarket as quality supervisor in the food section and in a lab where she tested the colour of egg yolks used for mayonnaise and the acidity levels of pickles.

A Career in Science

After several years Elion finally started working in her desired field when she started working for George H. Hitchings as an assistant at the pharmaceutical company Burroughts-Wellcome, now known as GlaxoSmithKline. The research that Hitchings was busy with involved his theory that cancer cells could be destroyed without destroying other cells by tricking the cancer cells into accepting artificial growth components. In Hitchings’ lab Elion started working with purines and she eventually developed 6-MP and tioguanine – two anti-cancer drugs.

Awards and Honours

- Elion, Hitchings and Sir James Black were given the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together in 1988 for their discoveries - Elected as member of several medical academies and institutions including the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences - Received several awards including the National Medal of Science, the Garvan-Olin medal and the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award - Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame


  • Elion planned to marry Leonard, a statistician, but he died
  • Elion didn’t have children
  • Some of the hobbies listed by Elion are music, travelling and photography