Gertrude Belle Elion was the first woman inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. She is named on 45 different patents, most notably for the discovery of medicines that fight leukemia, gout, herpes, and a drug that suppresses the immune system. She won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988.
Gertrude's parents were immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 1900's. Her father was from Lithuania; her mother was from the region of Russia that was later to become Poland. Her father worked his way through dental school, and her mother worked as a seamstress. Gertrude was born in New York City on January 13, 1918. In 1921 Gertrude's beloved grandfather emigrated from Russia and moved in with the family. He and young Gertrude had a very close, loving relationship and spent many hours together.
Gertrude was always quite the scholar and loved learning, but in 1929 her father went bankrupt with the crash of the stock market. This seriously affected Gertrude's prospects of attending college, but she didn't give up. Finally, in 1933, she was able to enroll in Hunter College, which was, at that time, a tuition free women's division; she was 15 years old. Then, during this time, she discovered that her grandfather was dying of stomach cancer; his death determined her choice of college major--chemistry.
At 19, she earned her chemistry degree, and despite graduating Phi Beta Kappa, she was unable to get a job in a laboratory...despite being told she was qualified. In fact, she was told that women don't work in labs because they are too distracting. This was the first time Gertrude had experienced that being a woman had disadvantages.
So, in desperation, she entered business school to prepare herself for a career in secretarial work, but she quit when she found a part-time job teaching chemistry in the school system. Throughout the early 1940's Gertrude worked at a variety of jobs--receptionist in a doctor's office, clerk for the A & P stores, a job a Quaker Chemicals, and at Johnson & Johnson. Largely, the main reason she was hired in the chemical companies was because men were not available; they were off fighting during World War II. And all the while, she was saving money to pay for her education...and at night and on weekends, she managed to obtain her Master's Degree in 1941, the only female graduate at New York University.
In 1944, Gertrude saw her dream finally coming true as she joined the famous Burroughs Wellcome as a research chemist...for $50 a week. She was one of only two women among a staff of 75. She also began studying for her doctorate at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, but found she couldn't work and earn her degree at the same time, so she dropped out and stuck with her day job.
Gertrude spent 40 years inventing pharmaceuticals. In 1967, she she became head of the company's Department of Experimental Therapy. In the 1950's she pioneered the development of two drugs that interfered with the reproductive process of cancer cells to cause remissions in childhood leukemia. In 1957 she created the first immuno-suppressive agent leading to successful organ transplants. In 1977 she developed the first drug used against viral herpes. In 1983 she officially retired, but continued working almost full-time and oversaw the development of AZT, the first drug used for the treatment of AIDS. In 1988 she received the Nobel Prize, capping off a career devoted to combating some of the world's most dangerous diseases. On February 21, 1999, she went out for her daily walk, but never made it home. Gertrude Belle Elion passed away at age 81.
Although she had to battle longstanding prejudices against women in science, a combination of brilliance, determination, and pure stubbornness brought her to the top of her profession. Gertrude Belle Elion never lost sight of the human being she devoted her life to. The following was one of many found in her office:
Dear Ms. Elion,
I opened my newspaper this morning and through many tears read of your great honor, the Nobel Prize. My daughter, Tiffany, was stricken with herpes encephalitis in September, 1987. A neurologist said the only hope for her was possibly the drug acylovir (AZT).
I thanked the Lord many times that he blessed you with the determination, stamina, love, and patience to work all of the long hours, days, months, and years it takes to invent a new drug. Tiffany is a senior in high school this year and doing great. May the Lord bless you beyond your wildest dreams.