ELS Celebrates Women’s History Month: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

As we grapple with the devastating impact of COVID-19, we pause to honor women pioneers whose inventions were borne from the necessity of saving lives. Today we recognize the American biochemist and pharmacologist, Gertrude B. Elion.  

Gertrude Belle Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City in 1918. She enjoyed school and looked forward to pursuing a college education. Elion decided to study chemistry, with the hope of contributing to the fight against cancer. Entering Hunter College in the fall of 1933, Gertrude graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in chemistry when she was only 19.

In 1944, Elion joined the Burroughs Wellcome Laboratories (later part of Glaxo Wellcome; today known as GlaxoSmithKline). There she was first the assistant and then the colleague of Dr. George Hitchings, with whom she worked for the next four decades. Elion and Hitchings developed an array of new drugs that were effective against leukemia, autoimmune disorders, urinary-tract infections, gout, malaria, and viral herpes. Their success was due primarily to their innovative research methods, which marked a radical departure from the trial-and-error approach taken by previous pharmacologists.

Elion and Hitchings pointedly examined the difference between the biochemistry of normal human cells and those of cancer cells, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens (disease-causing agents). They then used this information to formulate drugs that could kill or inhibit the reproduction of a particular pathogen, leaving the human host’s normal cells undamaged. The two researchers’ new emphasis on understanding basic biochemical and physiological processes enabled them to eliminate much guesswork and wasted effort typical previously in developing new therapeutic drugs.

Though Elion officially retired in 1983, she helped oversee the development of azidothymidine (AZT), the first drug used in the treatment of AIDS. In 1991 she was awarded a National Medal of Science and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

ELS salutes these and all women who work to save lives every day. 

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_B._Elion (Image)