Tag Archives: Medicine

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: Baruch Blumberg

Hepatitis B and The First Cancer Vaccine

Baruch Samuel “Barry” Blumberg

Baruch Samuel Blumberg (1925-2011) was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. He studied at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and then at Far Rockaway High School in Queens (which was also attended by fellow prominent scientist and former Jew of the Week Richard Feynman). After serving in the US Navy during World War II (attaining the rank of commanding officer), Blumberg studied math and medicine at Columbia University. He earned his MD in 1951, worked as a doctor for several years, then enrolled at Oxford University to do a PhD in biochemistry. Decades later, he would be elected Master of Oxford’s prestigious Balliol College (founded all the way back in 1263), making him the first American and the first scientist to hold the title. In the 1960s, Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B antigen, and soon showed how the virus could cause liver cancer. His team began working on a diagnostic test and a vaccine, and successfully produced both. Although Blumberg had a patent on the vaccine, he gave it away freely to save as many lives as possible. (One thirty-year follow up study showed that the vaccine reduced infection from 20% to 2% of the population, and liver cancer deaths by as much as 90%. Some have therefore called it the first cancer vaccine.) Blumberg was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work with hepatitis B, and his “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases.” In 1992, he co-founded the Hepatitis B Foundation, dedicated to helping people living with the disease, and funding research for a cure. Meanwhile, Blumberg taught medicine and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Incredibly, he also directed NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, was president of the American Philosophical Society, and a distinguished scholar advising the Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, as well as the Library of Congress. He had worked for the National Institutes of Health, and The Institute for Cancer Research. Blumberg remained Torah-observant throughout his life, and rarely missed his weekly Talmud class. He credited his Jewish studies as a youth for sharpening his mind and allowing him to excel in academia, and once said that he was drawn to medicine because of the ancient Talmudic statement that “if you save a single life, you save the whole world.” Fittingly, it has been said that Blumberg “prevented more cancer deaths than any person who’s ever lived.”

Words of the Week

Science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how we go to heaven.
– Renowned evolutionary bologist Stephen J. Gould

Jews of the Week: Waksman and Schatz

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman

Selman Abraham Waksman (1888-1973) was born near Kiev to Jewish-Russian parents. At 22, he immigrated to the U.S. and began his studies at Rutgers University, where he got a Masters in Science before getting his Ph.D. in biology at UC Berkeley. He then headed back to Rutgers to take over the soil microbiology lab, focusing on the study of soil organisms and decomposition. Building on the work of previous scientists, Waksman soon found that bacterial substances could be used to fight bacterial infections. He shifted his lab’s focus towards finding “antibiotics” – a term which he coined. Over the next couple of decades, his lab discovered a dozen antibiotic compounds.

Albert Schatz

Most important of these was streptomycin, discovered by Waksman’s student Albert Israel Schatz (1920-2005). Schatz also came from Jewish-Russian lineage and originally wanted to be a farmer. He studied soil microbiology, and after serving in a military hospital during World War II, decided to research treatments for tuberculosis. Working in Waksman’s lab, Schatz discovered and named “streptomycin”, which would become one of the most important antibiotics in history, and is still found on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. Schatz made no profit from his discovery, giving up his rights to the drug so that it could be distributed as widely and cheaply to as many people as possible. Unfortunately, he was never given the credit he deserved, with the Nobel prize going only to Waksman in 1952. Both biologists continued their contributions to science, and were decorated with many awards. Waksman also developed microbe-resistant paint for ships, enzyme-enhanced detergents, and a compound to prevent fungal infections of vineyards. He wrote over 400 papers and published 28 books. Meanwhile, Schatz campaigned against the fluoridation of water, proposed new theories for tooth decay and the extinction of dinosaurs, and published over 700 papers and 3 textbooks. Both were ultimately credited for streptomycin, which The New York Times ranked among the Top 10 discoveries of the 20th century.

Words of the Week

“Let there be light” means that all the world – even darkness – should become a source of light and wisdom. It is our job to reveal the hidden light – especially the light that you yourself hold.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe