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Shakespeare Club hears paper Gertrude Elion

Joan Larson

The seventh meeting of the Fredonia Shakespeare Club was held on Nov. 21 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northern Chautauqua, hosted by Leanna McMahon. President Lucille Richardson welcomed 13 members.

Priscilla Bernatz read the minutes from the Nov. 14 meeting. The minutes were approved as written.

Nominations for next year’s officers were presented by Lucille Richardson. Members voted to accept these officers at the Dec. 5 meeting.

The Club’s area of study this year is Nobel Prize Winners. Joan Larson read her paper “Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1988, Gertrude Elion” which is summarized as follows:

Gertrude Elion was born in New York City on Jan. 23, 1918 to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. She and her younger brother grew up in the Bronx in New York where they enjoyed playing in the large parks and visiting the Bronx Zoo.

In 1937, she graduated from Hunter College, City University of New York with a BS in Chemistry. Her ultimate goal was to become a cancer researcher. For several years, she worked as a lab assistant, a food analyst (tested pickles and berries for quality at Quaker Maid Company), and a high school teacher while studying for her Master’s degree at night. She completed her MS in Chemistry from New York University in 1941.

When World War II broke out, there was an urgent need for women at scientific laboratories. Gertrude obtained a position in instrumentation at an industrial laboratory. She then became an assistant to George H. Hitchings at the Burroughs-Wellcome Pharmaceutical Company (now Glaxo-Smith Kline). By choosing this path, she was not able to continue studying for her Masters. However, in 1998 she was awarded an honorary Masters from Harvard University.

Working with George Hitchings, Gertrude helped develop the first drugs to combat leukemia, herpes, gout, malaria, meningitis, and bacterial infections. She also worked to develop drugs that limited the body’s rejection in organ transplants.

By 1967 she had been promoted to be the director of the company’s Department of Experimental Therapy. Although she officially retired in 1983, she continued working almost full-time at the lab. She oversaw the development of azidothymidine (AZT), which became the first drug used for the treatment of AIDS.

Gertrude Elion won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988. She shared the award with Sir James Black and George Hitchings for their use of innovative methods of retinal drug design for the development of new drugs. This new method focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than simply using trial and error. The field of medicine, as well as the world, is fortunate that Gertrude Elion and her partners pursued avenues of research for the betterment of mankind.

Gertrude Elion died in North Carolina on Feb. 21, 1999. She was admired by a number of students and colleagues for her dedication to science. She was quoted as saying, “The Nobel Prize is fine, but the drugs I’ve developed are rewards in themselves.”

Dr. Irene Strychalski assisted at the tea table.

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