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Gertrude B. Elion
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Scientist
    (January 23, 1918-February 21, 1999)
    Born in New York City, New York
    Biochemist
    Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy for Burroughs Wellcome (1967-83)
    Developed the drugs Zovirax (for herpes), Daraprim (for malaria), 6-mercaptopurine (for leukemia) and Azothioprine (an immune-suppressive drug used in organ transplants)
    Held 45 patents
    Co-recipient with George H. Hitchings and James Black of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1988)
    She was unable to obtain a scholarship to graduate school because she was a woman.
    She recalled about her response when one lab refused to hire her on the grounds that she was too pretty and would distract the male scientists, ‘I almost fell apart…. It surprises me to this day that I didn’t get angry. I got very discouraged.
    In her first paying laboratory job, she worked as a food analyst, checking the acidity of pickles and the color of egg yolks used in mayonnaise.
    She was able to get hired as a biochemist by Burroughs Wellcome thanks to the labor shortage caused by World War II.
    She spent her career at Burroughs Wellcome one step behind George H. Hitchings: when he was promoted to a new position, she would fill his old one.
    She decided to go into medical research as a teen after her grandfather died of cancer.
    She enrolled in Hunter College at age 15.
    She and Hitchings avoided the trial-and-error approach previously used in developing drugs, but instead examined the biochemical differences between normal human cells and pathogens (disease-causing agents such as bacteria, viruses or cancer cells) and used the information to formulate a drug that would target the pathogen while ignoring healthy cells.
    Although she officially retired in 1983, she continued working at the lab almost full-time and oversaw the development of AZT as the first drug to treat AIDS.
    She was one of the few Nobel Prize winners in the sciences to lack a doctorate.
    She was the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1991).

Credit: C. Fishel


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