Tag Archives: Polish Jews

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: Jerry Wexler

The King of R&B

Gerald Wexler (1917-2008) was born in The Bronx to an immigrant family of German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish background. He graduated from high school by age 15, but there was little to do in the difficult days of the Great Depression. Wexler spent much of his time with a small circle of friends listening to music and discussing literature. It was only after returning from World War II military service that he finally pursued a career in journalism and music. He got a job as a reporter for Billboard Magazine, and soon became its editor. At the time, the magazine had a separate music chart for “black music”, called “Race Records”. Wexler took a stand against racism and came up with a new title, renaming the chart “Rhythm & Blues”. He thus coined the now popular term “R&B”. In 1953, the president of the start-up Atlantic Records (a fellow Jew named Herb Abramson) was drafted to the US Army. Wexler was offered to take his place. Under Wexler’s leadership, Atlantic Records became one of the world’s most successful music labels, and produced some of the biggest names in music, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. For bringing the latter to the world, Wexler was named Record Executive of the Year in 1967. (Franklin had struggled to find success in music until Wexler convinced her to join him at Atlantic, and produced her breakout hit song, “Respect”.) The following year, he signed a young group called Led Zeppelin. Wexler would go on to work with other big stars, including Bob Dylan, the Bee Gees, Richard Pryor, Carlos Santana, and George Michael. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Wexler played a central role in ending the era of “race music” (and stopping the practice of white musicians covering songs of black musicians and raking in all the fame and fortune for themselves). He opened the door for more “black music” to enter the once all-white Billboard charts, and has been credited with bringing “black music to the masses”. Not surprisingly, Wexler has been called “a prophet of roots and rhythm” and “the Jewish king of black music”.

Words of the Week

Music is the pen of the soul.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadifounder of Chabad