Before biochemist Elion’s pioneering work on rational drug design, the drug discovery process relied mostly on trial and error.

This was very time-consuming and expensive. Elion and her supervisor’s logical approach of analysing the biochemistry of pathogens and cancer cells, then working backwards to come up with a solution, earned them the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The success of this principle led to Elion’s name appearing on patents for 45 drugs, treating conditions from malaria to herpes. But as a female scientist born in 1918, Elion’s success wasn’t just the result of her talent, but of her unwavering determination.

The daughter of Eastern European immigrants to New York, Elion was moved to pursue science by her grandfather’s death of stomach cancer. This led her to major in chemistry at Hunter College. But after the 1929 stock market crash, and having all 15 of her applications for financial aid rejected due to her gender, Elion couldn’t initially afford to go to graduate school to earn an MSc.

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In the Great Depression jobs were hard to find, let alone jobs for women in science. However, Elion persevered. She worked as a biochemistry teacher, a secretary and a lab assistant to save up money. She started graduate school in 1939 and even while carrying out the required research, Elion held down a high school teaching position. By the time she earned her MSc, WWII conscription meant there were more chemistry jobs available, but it wasn’t until Elion became George Hitching’s assistant that she was able to reach her full potential and flourish.

Their work was based on nucleic acid metabolism and Elion’s main focus was purines. Her first major discovery was a leukaemia treatment called 6-mercaptopurine. It inhibited the DNA production of cancerous cells which would take up 6-mercaptopurine for nucleic acid synthesis instead of adenine or hypoxanthine. Just two of her many subsequent achievements included developing azathioprine, the immunosuppressant drug which made organ transplants possible, and overseeing the development of AZT, the first drug used to treat AIDS.

From 1967 to 1983, Elion was Head of the Department of Experimental Therapy. She also held many roles within the National Cancer Institute and was involved with many societies, including the Tropical Disease Research division of the WHO. Even after her official retirement she remained active, acting as a Scientist Emeritus and Consultant at Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) and a Research Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at Duke University.

Elion worked tirelessly until her death in 1999. Her inspirational legacy demonstrates the power of resilience and how necessary it is if you are to succeed at making change in the world. In the words of Gertrude herself, “Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily.”

This piece was written by Stemettes Society member, Sophie S.

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