Inspiring Jewish Women: Gertrude Elion

Between 1901 and 2019, Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 919 people and 24 organizations. Of the Nobel laureates, 20% have been Jewish.[1] This is amazing considering the Jewish people only comprise 0.2% of the world’s population! Of the 919 laureates, only 53 were women (Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize twice in 1903 and 1911), eight of which were Jewish.

Gertrude “Trudy” Belle Elion is one of four women, all of which were Jewish, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine between 1947 and 1988. Trudy is dear to my heart for her scientific work, which continues to impact the world today, as well as her mentoring and humanitarian work and outlook. Trudy developed many new drugs we still use today, and along with her research partner George Hitchings, she pioneered new scientific approaches to drug development that revolutionized the way drugs were developed. Among the drugs she developed are the first chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, the immunosuppressant that makes organ transplants possible, and the first successful anti-viral drug. She also developed treatments for lupus, hepatitis, arthritis, gout, and other diseases. Her work led to the creation of the AIDS drug known as AZT. Trudy’s efforts have saved the lives of countless individuals.

Trudy’s lifelong goal was to alleviate human suffering. The catalyst for this goal was the painful death of her grandfather from stomach cancer. She was born in 1918 in New York to immigrant parents from eastern Europe. She had just graduated from high school at age 15 when her grandfather died of cancer. At this point she dedicated herself to finding a cure for cancer. Her desire and dedication was further spurred by the death of her fiancé from a bacterial endocarditis, which was an untreatable heart infection at that time, and later by the death of her mother from cervical cancer.

Trudy battled great obstacles to achieve her goals. She overcame longstanding prejudices against women in science, which for years kept her from graduate studies or finding a job in her field. But her determination, brilliance, and stubbornness led her to the top of her profession. In 1944, Trudy began working with Dr. George Hitchings at Burroughs Wellcome pharmaceutical company, later Glaxo Burroughs, where she worked until she retired from active research in 1983.

In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Trudy was a humanitarian, mentor, and role model. She often spoke to and spent time with students from grade school to medical school. She acquired a reputation as an approachable, inspiring, down-to-earth mentor to students, assistants, and colleagues. She used her unique position as Nobel Laureate to help smooth the way for other women in the scientific community. She led programs that provided mentoring, she encouraged, developed and contributed to scholarship funds for women to study science, and she contributed to charities. Along the way, Trudy always kept in mind the people whose diseases she was trying to cure. She treasured knowing that her work had directly benefited the lives of people. She truly cared for people, from her family and friends to those who took her drugs and to those who would one day might benefit from her research.

When Gertrude Elion died in 1999, Robert A. Ingram, chief executive of Glaxo Wellcome (formerly Burrough Wellcome), observed, “Gertrude Elion’s love of science was surpassed only by her compassion for people.”[2] Trudy’s generous heart and brilliant mind touched the lives of countless individuals around the world. She left a legacy that will benefit humanity for years to come through the drugs and new scientific approaches she developed, the scientists she influenced, and the young people she inspired. MJTI is especially thankful for Trudy’s contributions as they have saved and improved the lives of more than one of MJTI’s community.

This article was written by MJTI Academic Dean Rabbi Dr. Vered Hillel. For more inspiring Jewish women, read her articles about Ellen GoldsmithDoña Gracia Nasi, or Emma Lazarus.

[1] Of the 204 Jewish recipients, 11 are of patrilineal descent.

[2] Quote taken from Last accessed Sept. 6, 2020.

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