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Nobel Laureate Gertrude Elion Dies

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CHAPEL HILL — Nobel laureate Gertrude Elion, 81, died Sunday at UNC Hospitals. Dr. Elion touched thousands of people over the world with her work on life-saving medicines, including drugs to treat leukemia, herpes and immunity disorders. Her name appears on 45 patents.

Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize for Medicine with Dr. George Hitchings, her professional colleague of more than 40 years. The two worked at Burroughs Wellcome, which later became Glaxo Wellcome.

"Gertrude Elion's love of science was surpassed only by her compassion for people," said Robert A. Ingram, chief executive of Glaxo Wellcome plc in a statement.

Her work led to development of anti-leukemia therapies, treatments for severe rheumatoid arthritis, drugs for malaria, gout, bacterial infections and for herpes virus infections, as well as medications used to fight rejection in organ transplant recipients.

Elion was born in New York City, daughter of immigrants from Lithuania and Russia. She earned her bachelor's degree from Hunter College, and a master's in chemistry from New York University.

Degrees in hand, she was nonetheless barred from a laboratory position in academia because she was a woman. Instead, she taught high school chemistry and physics, and tested pickles and berries for a food company.

Labor shortages caused by World War II led to the opportunity to join Burroughs Wellcome in 1944 as an assistant in Hitchings' lab.

She once said, "Science is the kind of discipline where you keep learning all the time. I always wanted a job where you didn't stop learning and there was always something new."

Her job at Burroughs Wellcome enabled her to work in cancer research, a goal she formed as a teenager when her grandfather, and later her mother, died of cancer.

Although she never did complete her doctoral work, she was awarded 24 honorary doctorates from universities and colleges. She was also recipient of the National Medal of Science, the Garvan Medal from the American Chemical Society, the Judd Award from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and the Discoverers Award from the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association.

Closer to home, she was also a recipient of Durham's City of Medicine Award.

She was also member of a clutch of prestigious scientific and medical academies and associations, both national and international.

Dr. Elion's family requests that donations be made in her memory to the Leukemia Society of America, 600 Third Ave., New York, NY 10016.