Daughter of Lithuanian and Polish emigrants, Gertrude was born in New York in 1918. She graduated from Hunter College with a B.A. degree, but it was difficult for a woman to find a job in science those times, so she started her career as a high school teacher. Later she was hired as an assistant to George H. Hitchings in the Burroughs-Wellcome Research Laboratories.
Elion, working predominantly with Hitchings, created drugs to efficiently combat a multitude of illnesses. Their inventions include 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), the first treatment for leukaemia. She is also credited for the discovery of Pyrimethamine (Daraprim), for malaria; Acyclovir (Zovirax), for viral herpes; and Azathioprine (Imuran), the first immuno-suppressive agent, used for organ transplants.
Shared with Hitchings and Sir James Black, Elion received the 1988 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment. Her long years of research resulted in some 45 drug patents. In 1991, she became the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and received the National Medal of Science.
She never got married; she dedicated her entire life to science.