100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Chemotherapy
Year of Invention: 1950

What Is It? Chemical compounds able to selectively target and destroy cancer
cells within the body.

Who Invented It? Gertrude Elion (in New York City)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

The chemical compounds Gertrude Elion created were the first weapons given to doctors that successfully fought the death sentence of cancer. Her chemical compounds attacked cancerous cells while leaving most normal cells unaffected. Millions of people are alive today because of her invention.

Her approach to the development of chemotherapy drugs also led to the discovery of a new family of drugs that have saved millions of lives and have led to miracle cures for diseases, from cancers, to herpes, to gout, to AIDS.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Cancer had always been a death sentence. From the moment of diagnosis, there was virtually nothing doctors could do to either slow or to defeat this disease.

Medical science didn’t understand how cancer cells worked, how they grew so fast and so powerfully, why cancer happened, what triggered a cancer to start, or even how to detect and prevent it before the disease took hold of a person’s body. The only drugs in a doctors’ arsenal were used to ease cancer’s pain and to make patients comfortable.


How Was Chemotherapy Invented?

In 1933, when Gertrude Elion was 15, her beloved grandfather lay shriveled and pasty-white, dying of stomach cancer. He had lived with Gertrude’s family since she was three and had been her companion while growing up. To Gertrude, it was a stranger lying in the bed. His skin was almost translucent and so fragile looking she barely dared touch him. The robust laughter she loved had been replaced by raspy whispers and a face etched in pain. The body had shrunk in on the bones, looking more like a corpse than a vital being.

The terrible sight of what cancer had done to her grandfather, more than anything else, made Gertrude choose her career. It made her a woman with an unstoppable mission.

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