Jew of the Week: Gertrude Elion

The Woman Who Saved Millions of Lives

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Belle Elion (1918-1999) was born in New York to Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish immigrants. She excelled at school, and when her grandfather passed away from cancer, was determined to find the cure. She went on to volunteer as an assistant in a chemistry lab, and was eventually hired for just $20 a week. She used that money to pay for school, earning her Master’s in chemistry in 1941. Unfortunately, Elion was rejected for all fellowships and post-graduate positions because of her gender. Instead, she went to work for a supermarket, testing food quality. From there, she got a job as an assistant in a New York pharmacology lab (now owned by GlaxoSmithKline). Working under the supervision of George Hitchings, she developed two new anti-cancer drugs by 1950. Elion continued to work at the lab, and eventually became the head of its Experimental Therapy department. Despite never formally earning a Ph.D, she was a professor of pharmacology at Duke University between 1971 and 1999. Among the drugs that Elion developed are Purinethol (the first leukemia medication), Daraprim (to treat malaria), and Acyclovir (the first and most common antiviral medication, used to treat herpes, chicken pox, and shingles). Azathioprine, a drug to prevent organ transplant rejection which Elion discovered in 1963, has since been used to ensure successful kidney transplants for over 500,000 people. She also developed drugs to treat meningitis, gout, urinary, and respiratory infections. While Elion officially retired from drug-making in 1983, she was inspired to continue working due to the then-recent outbreak of HIV/AIDS. She continued working full time until the successful release of AZT, the first drug to treat AIDS. For all of this tremendous work, which saved the lives of countless thousands, Elion was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988. She received a National Medal of Science in 1991, and in that same year became the first woman ever inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. (Elion holds 45 patents.) She finally received an honourary Ph.D from New York University in 1989, and another doctorate from Harvard when she was 80 years old. She is recognized as one of the greatest pharmacologists and biochemists of all time.

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Words of the Week

If you wait until you find the meaning of life, will there be enough life left to live meaningfully?

– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersonthe Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Baba Sali

A Modern Miracle Worker

Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira (1889-1984) was born on Rosh Hashanah in Tafilalt, Morocco to a long line of Sephardic rabbis and miracle-workers. (His grandfather was the famed Abir Yakov, who was himself a grandson of Rabbi Shmuel Abuhatzeira, who had studied with Rabbi Chaim Vital, a disciple of the great Arizal.) The young Israel grew up on an estate that included a yeshiva and a beit din (the local Jewish courthouse), surrounded by wise scholars, judges, and mystics. By the age of 12, Israel was recognized as a child prodigy, and already began living the life of a mystic – fasting regularly, rising at midnight to pray and meditate – while hiding it all from his parents. He married at 16. After his father passed away and his older brother was murdered, the community begged him to take over as the town rabbi. Although only 22 years old, and exceedingly humble and modest, he eventually accepted. Within a decade, he was famous across Morocco, and as far as Israel, as a wise rabbi, a saint and a miracle-worker. On his first trip to the Holy Land, it is said that he reopened the Arizal’s ancient synagogue, which had been sealed off for years due to an apparent curse. Though he wished to stay in the Holy Land, Rabbi Abuhatzeira returned to Morocco to take care of his community. When the conditions for Jews in Morocco deteriorated even further after the founding of the State of Israel, Rabbi Abuhatzeira took it upon himself to facilitate Moroccan Jewry’s migration back to their Promised Land. He made the move himself in 1950. By then, he carried a new title: Because his prayers and blessings were known to always came true, he was referred to as Baba Sali, the “Praying Father”. The main possessions that he brought over from Morocco were 30 crates of books and manuscripts, together with thousands of pages of his own holy writings. He is considered one of the greatest kabbalists and holiest rabbis of recent decades. He was sought after not only by Jews, but by Arabs as well, and stories of his miracles abound. He took ill several months after his 94th birthday, and passed away soon after. The Baba Sali’s funeral was attended by over 100,000 people, and his grave in the town of Netivot is now a popular pilgrimage site. His yahrzeit begins tonight.

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Words of the Week

A man’s kind deeds are used by God as seeds for the planting of trees in the Garden of Eden; thus, each man creates his own Paradise. The reverse is true when he commits transgressions.
– Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch