Tag Archives: AIDS

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.

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

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: Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk

Jonas Salk

Jonas Edward Salk (1914-1995) was born in New York to poor Russian-Jewish immigrants. His own dream was to be a lawyer, but his mother pushed him to enter the field of medicine. Salk decided to do research instead of becoming a physician, driven by a vision to help all of mankind rather than just a few patients. However, because he was a Jew, Salk was barred from working at many institutions. Nonetheless, during this time he developed an influenza vaccine that was widely used by the US army. Eventually he found his way to work in cramped quarters in the basement of Pittsburgh’s Municipal Hospital. A grant from the Mellon family allowed him to build a proper virology lab. It was there that Salk developed the polio vaccine in the post-war epidemic that plagued the world. Before the vaccine was introduced in 1955, polio killed over 3,000 people and left over 20,000 paralyzed every year in the US alone! One of the most famous victims was President Roosevelt, confined to a wheelchair for much of his term in office. It was said that “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.” Salk worked tirelessly to create the polio vaccine, labouring sixteen hours a day, 7 days a week. When asked who owned the patent he replied “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Salk received the first-ever Congressional Medal for Distinguished Civilian Service, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. More significantly, his achievement inspired a dramatic increase in government funding of medical research. In 1960 he founded the Salk Institute, a world-reknowned centre of medical research. Salk also published several books, and is considered the father of the field of “biophilosophy”. He spent the last years of his life trying to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.


Words of the Week

A denigrating attitude toward others while inflating one’s own importance makes one lose all his spiritual gains, God forbid.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Hayom Yom, Iyar 20)