Gertrude Belle Elion’s journey from mayonnaise to medicine
One of the 20th century’s greatest chemists once worked in the food industry. Luckily, her talents weren’t restricted to testing sandwich spreads.
Think of leukaemia and the subject of mayonnaise doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Yet had fate not intervened, one of the most important researchers into the nature and treatment of blood cancer might today be known – if at all – as simply a master of mayo.
Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City in 1918. Her father had been a child immigrant from Lithuania, and her mother had arrived, aged 14, from Russia in 1914.
When Gertrude was born her parents were comfortably off, mainly because her father, Robert, had built up a healthy dental practice. “My first seven years were spent in a large apartment in Manhattan where my father had his dental office, with our living quarters adjoining it,” she later recalled.
In 1929, however, life for the Elion family took a big turn for the worse when they lost most of their money in the Wall Street Crash. This limited Gertrude’s options for further education after high school, but fortunately she gained admission, at age 15, to a nearby free college on the back of her good grades. Her grandfather’s death from cancer spurred her choice to major in chemistry.
After graduating from college, she had no means to pay to attend graduate school and her employment prospects were bleak. Work was scarce for everyone during the Great Depression, and many potential employers could not accept the idea a woman could be a good chemist. She scored several stints of unpaid and temporary work as a lab assistant, then switched to relief high school teaching while also studying at nights in her quest for a Master’s degree in chemistry.
Then World War II broke out and suddenly – with men joining the fighting forces en masse – many more jobs became available to women. Elion gave up the world of freelance science teaching and took a job with food manufacturer Quaker Maid. Her responsibilities included testing the acidity of pickles and making sure egg yolk going into mayonnaise was the right colour.
There she might have remained, had not her ever-curious mind driven her to seek new challenges. In 1944 she found a position as a biochemist at the research laboratories of Burroughs Wellcome, which would later become GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company.
She would remain with the company, even after officially retiring in 1983, until her death in 1999 at the age of 81.
Along the way, she would win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988. The prize, shared with colleagues James Black and George Hitchings, was awarded in recognition of research that, to quote the citation, “demonstrated differences in nucleic acid metabolism between normal human cells, cancer cells, protozoa, bacteria and virus”.
The trio’s discoveries went far further than simply establishing the ways in which different cells operate. They put their findings to work and created several critically important drugs saving millions of lives.
Elion played a central role in the development of thioguanine and 6-mercaptopurine, used to treat leukaemia. Thioguanine is still on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines.
Her team also developed pyrimethamine, a malaria treatment, and allopurinol, used to treat gout. Another of Elion’s drugs, azathioprine, works to stop the immune system from rejecting new organs – without it, there could be no transplant surgery. If that wasn’t enough, in 1977 her team’s discoveries were adapted to create acyclovir, the first effective treatment against the herpes virus.
At one stage in her early years at Wellcome, Elion was faced with a very tough choice: she was told that if she wanted to complete her PhD she would have to quit work and study full-time. She opted to drop her studies and stay at the lab – a difficult decision at a time when female scientists were often considered inferior to male ones.
“Years later, when I received three honorary doctorate degrees from George Washington University, Brown University and the University of Michigan, I decided that perhaps that decision had been the right one after all,” she observed wryly at the time of accepting her Nobel Prize.