Gertrude Belle Elion
Born Jan 23 1918 - Died Feb 21 1999
Patent Number(s) 2,884,667
Gertrude Belle Elion invented the leukemia-fighting drug 6-mercaptopurine and drugs that facilitated kidney transplants. Hired by Burroughs-Wellcome (now Glaxo Wellcome) in 1944, she began work on antagonists of nucleic acid building blocks. This led to the synthesis of 6-mercaptopurine, a drug quickly marketed as Purinethol, and to another antileukemic drug, 6-thioguanine. Her continued research led to Imuran, a derivative of 6-mercaptopurine that was found to block the body's rejection of foreign tissues.
In combination with other drugs, Imuran enabled kidney transplants from unrelated donors. Elion and her team were prominent in the development of allopurinol (trade name Zyloprim), for treatment of gout, and of a new antiviral agent, acyclovir (Zovirax), which has been used to battle herpes virus infections.
Born in New York City, Elion attended Hunter College at the age of 15 and graduated summa cum laude in 1937. She received her M.S. in chemistry from New York University. From 1969 until her death, she received 25 honorary doctorates. Elion's early career included working as a high school teacher and as an analytical chemist. In 1988, Elion shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with George Hitchings, her colleague of 40 years, and researcher Sir James Black. In 1967, she was named Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs-Wellcome. She officially retired in 1983. Elion continued her work toward the advancement of science through the World Health Organization, honorary university lectureships, and assisting students in medical research. Her name appears on 45 patents.