Gertrude B. Elion
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988
Born: 23 January 1918, New York, NY, USA
Died: 21 February 1999, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
Affiliation at the time of the award: Wellcome Research Laboratories, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA
Prize motivation: “for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment”
Prize share: 1/3
Gertrude Elion was born in New York. When, as a teenager, she watched her maternal grandfather die of cancer, Elion decided to devote her life to fighting the disease. She studied chemistry at Hunter College and New York University, but, as a woman, had difficulty finding work as a chemist. During World War II a lack of chemists arose because many men had joined the war, which led Elion to find work at a laboratory. In the mid-1940s she moved to Burroughs Wellcome's research laboratory, now GlaxoSmithKline, where she remained until her death.
Gertrude Elion's research revolutionized both the development of new pharmaceuticals and the field of medicine in general. Previously, pharmaceuticals had primarily been produced from natural substances. During the 1950s, Elion, together with George Hitchings, developed a systematic method for producing drugs based on knowledge of biochemistry and diseases. One of the first drugs produced by the pair was for leukemia and helped many children with the disease to survive. Other drugs they created have been used to fight malaria, infections, and gout, as well as help with organ transplantations.