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Gertrude B. Elion

1918 to 2-21-1999
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GERTRUDE B. ELION, 1918-1999CHAPEL HILL -- It is with deep sorrow that we announce the death of Dr. Gertrude Belle Elion, Scientist Emeritus with Glaxo Wellcome Inc., and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Elion died Sunday, February 21, at 11:30 p.m. at University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was 81 years old.

Dr. Elion made numerous contributions to the advancement of science and discovered many life-saving medicines including drugs used to treat leukemia, herpes, and immunity disorders. Her name appears on 45 patents. She perhaps is best known for sharing the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with George Hitchings, her colleague of 40 years, with whom she worked at Burroughs Wellcome.

Dr. Elion received a bachelor's degree from Hunter College in New York in 1937 and a master's degree in chemistry from New York University in 1941. Since female scientists were not accepted in academia at that time, she was unable to find a laboratory position and instead went to work teaching high school chemistry and physics, providing laboratory instruction for nurses, and testing pickles and berries for the Quaker Maid Company.

Her great opportunity came when the United States entered World War II. She joined Burroughs Wellcome in 1944 as an assistant in the laboratory of Dr. George Hitchings, the man with whom she would share the Nobel Prize for Medicine 44 years later. Dr. Hitchings died at age 92, almost exactly a year ago, on February 27, 1998.

Dr. Elion's diligence and dedication propelled several life-saving drugs to market. She was the first to synthesize 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol) and thioguanine, both antileukemics; and azathioprine (Imuran), used to prevent organ transplant rejections and in treating severe rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, her work with azathioprine showed that the drug was ineffective against leukemia, but proved highly effective in suppressing the immune response. It made kidney transplantation a practical reality in the early 1960s and is now used also to treat autoimmune disorders, such as severe rheumatoid arthritis.

In addition to the drugs listed above, Dr. Elion also jointly helped to discover Daraprim for malaria, Zyloprim for gout, Septra for bacterial infections and Zovirax for herpes virus infections.

In 1967, she was named head of the Department of Experimental Therapy at Burroughs Wellcome. She officially retired in 1983, but maintained an office in the Elion-Hitchings Building. She remained active in research and professional organizations while holding appointments as Medical Research Professor or Pharmacology and Medicine at Duke University and Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Although Dr. Elion never completed her doctoral work, she was awarded 25 honorary doctorate degrees from schools, among them: Brown, Duke, North Carolina State, the University of North Carolina, Wake Forest, and East Carolina, George Washington, Michigan, Hunter College, Ohio State, Columbia, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Russell Sage College.

Besides the Nobel Prize, Dr. Elion was the recipient of many top awards including: the National Medal of Science, the Garvan Medal from the American Chemical Society, the President's Medal from Hunter College, the Judd Award from Memorial-Sloan Kettering Institute, the Cain Award from the American Association for Cancer Research, the Ernst W. Bertner Memorial Award from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the City of Medicine Award in Durham, NC, the Discoverers Award from the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, the Medal of Honor from the American Cancer Society, the Ronald H. Brown Innovator Award, the Distinguished Alumnus Award of the AASCU, and the Lemelson/MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Elion is Past President of the American Association for Cancer Research, and has served as a Presidential appointee on the National Cancer Advisory Board. She has been elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the National Women's Hall of Fame, and the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame.

Dr. Elion is survived by three nephews, Jon, Glenn and Gary Elion; one niece, BethAnne Elion; sister-in-law, Sheila Elion, and five grand nieces and nephews, Leslie, Leigh, Christopher, Brendan, and Douglas Elion. Memorial service will be held later this spring.

Dr. Elion's family requests that donations be made in her memory to the Leukemia Society of America, 600 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10016. Internet: http://www.leukemia.org/

ORANGE COUNTY
GERTRUDE B. ELION,
81, Chapel Hill, Feb. 21. Arrangements by Walker's Funeral Home.

News & Observer on the Web (http://www.news-observer.com) [02/23/99] Death notices.

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