Women of Valor


Early Research

Gertrude Elion, 1918 - 1999

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"We have to go back in time now to the 1940s. And remember that this is a time before the Watson-Crick discovery of structured DNA. And to know that DNA was understood to be the sort of essence of life and necessary to be duplicated in order for cells to divide, and for cells to live. One knew what the building blocks were, in there, because you could do it by just taking the thing apart and looking at the individual components. So the idea was, let's change the building blocks, slightly, just enough perhaps to fool a cancer cell or a bacteria or a virus into taking it up and then find that it's stuck and it can't get rid of it and it can't multiply."

Hitchings' and Elion's approach to their work was highly innovative. Contrary to most previous drug developers, who had depended largely on trial-and-error methods, they actively designed drugs based on knowledge of how cells worked. Although Watson and Crick had yet to discover the double-helix structure of DNA, scientists did know that cells need nucleic acids to reproduce. Hitchings theorized that by interfering with the DNA of cancer cells, bacteria, and viruses—which, because they need very large amounts of DNA to reproduce, should be particularly vulnerable to disruptions of their lifecycles - they could prevent the unwanted cells from replicating and thus stop the spread of disease. The goal was a drug that would disable the disease cells without harming normal cells.

Hitchings assigned Elion to work on the purines, two of the four bases that make up DNA. Elion created slightly altered versions of the purines, hoping to make one that would be similar enough to the real base that the disease cell would be fooled into incorporating it but different enough that it would be unable to use it to reproduce. "We used to call it a rubber donut," she said. "It looked like the real thing, but it wouldn't work."

Even as Elion became immersed in her research, she continued to aspire to the Ph.D. she had as yet been unable to earn. Enrolling at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, she commuted three nights a week from her job in Westchester County, to Brooklyn, and home to the Bronx. After two years, however, the dean demanded that she either work full-time on her doctorate or leave school. Unwilling to give up the exciting job that had been so difficult to get, Elion reluctantly gave up her dreams of a Ph.D.

  1. Quote beginning "We used to call it...." from Interview with Gertrude B. Elion, March 6, 1991, Academy of Achievement, accessed February 16, 2000; available at http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/eli0int-1.
  2. Remaining information from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 291; Katherine Bouton, "The Nobel Pair," New York Times Magazine, January 29, 1989: 60, 82.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Gertrude Elion - Early Research." (Viewed on April 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/elion/early-research>.