Birth Date: 15 August 1896
Date of Death: 26 October 1957 (age 61)
Place of Birth: Prague, Austro-Hungarian Empire
Place of Death: Glendale, Missouri, USA
Nationality: Czech
Occupation/Field of Study Czech-American biochemist, jointly awarded the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Carl Ferdinand Cori and Bernardo Alberto Houssay.

 

KEYWORDS: Nobel Prize, Cori cycle, carbohydrate metabolism, biochemistry, diabetes, enzymes, glycogen, phosphorylate

 

SHE THOUGHT IT

Gerty Cori is not only known as the third woman to win a Nobel Prize, but also as the first woman to be awarded in the field of Physiology or Medicine. Together with her husband Carl Cori, she explained a crucial part of the human body’s metabolism1. Although it may seem incredible today, a century ago there was little knowledge about the functions of the human body, and the physical ability to retain and produce energy was a particularly obscure function. Many of the things that seemed inexplicable back then found their scientific answer once the Coris started discovering the well-known Cori cycle2 (p. 106). The Cori cycle, or simply the mechanism of body energy storage and release, discovered in 1936, resulted in the beginning of a whole new generation of scientists, as well as a juncture between biochemistry and modern molecular biology2 (p. 106). Thanks to their advancements, significant changes took place, as they themselves recognised: “a most exciting period in biochemistry began to unfold…”2 (p. 106).

Their work, today a fundamental part of biochemistry, proved the importance of understanding the most basic chemical processes. In addition, they notably contributed to the understanding of diabetes, and trained a group of prominent biological scientists2 (p. 93-94). Gerty and Carl Cori are also admired for their later work on specific enzymes and hormones that affect the cycle, as well as the hereditary diseases deriving from their damage2 (p. 101).

SHORT BIOGRAPHY

Gerty Theresa Cori (born Radnitz) was born on 15 August 1896 in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The eldest of three children and born into a fairly wealthy Jewish family, she was educated at home by private tutors until the age of ten and was later sent to a girls’ private school. Slightly influenced by an uncle who was a professor at the University of Prague, Gerty Cori soon recognised her true passion, which made her enrol in medical school2 (p. 94). Firm in her decision and despite the lack of the essential knowledge required – even though at the time women were officially allowed to attend some universities in theory, in practice there were still numerous challenges to overcome, since a large number of subjects required to access the universities, such as Latin, mathematics, physics, and chemistry, weren’t taught in girls’ schools – Gerty Cori passed the acceptance exam in 1914 and thus became one of the few female students at the German Carl Ferdinand University of Prague3 (p. 58).

During the first year of medical school she met “the two loves of her life”2 (p. 94): biochemistry and her future husband Carl Cori, with whom she shared a great love for study and research2 (p. 94). They both graduated in 1920, the same year they published their first joint research paper, and continued to publish together for thirty-five years. At the time, Gerty Cori was employed as an assistant at the Karolinen paediatric hospital in Vienna, where she published several research papers on cretinism, today known as congenital thyroid deficiency2 (p. 98). However, conscious of the deteriorating situation of Europe, which was heading towards war, the couple chose to start a life overseas. Carl obtained a position at a research centre studying malignant diseases in Buffalo, New York, in 1922 and, six months later, Gerty Cori was hired as an assistant pathologist, to examine the effects of X-rays on the skin and the metabolism of body organs2 (p. 98-99).

In accordance with the general beliefs and rules back then, Gerty and Carl Cori were firmly discouraged from working together, yet they started researching the ways energy is produced and transmitted in the human body. By 1929, they had published fifty papers and developed work on theorising what would later be known as the Cori cycle4 (p. 16). They dedicated the rest of their lives to filling in the details. In 1936, they explained how the body resolves glycogen into sugar, and a few years later they discovered phosphorylate. This discovery also marked the first time that scientists observed the functioning of carbohydrate metabolism at a molecular level2 (p.104-06). They advanced the field of biology even more when they produced glycogen in a test tube4 (p. 17). After that, they kept discovering more enzymes.

Despite their ground-breaking findings, Gerty Cori worked as an assistant until 1944, when she was finally promoted to a full professorship at Washington University in St. Louis. By 1947, she was running the Cori laboratory at Washington University, which became the busiest centre for enzyme research in the world4 (p. 15). A few weeks before they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen”1 in 1947, Gerty Cori found out that she suffered from an unidentified lethal case of anaemia, which soon left her weak and dependent on blood transfusions2 (p. 113). Despite the illness, Gerty continued to work hard, even coming up with some of her most interesting discoveries during that period, such as the connection of some specific enzymes with several diseases. Because of her contributions, she launched a whole new world of learning and research, focused exclusively on genetic diseases2 (p. 115). Working until her last days with her husband Carl by her side, Gerty Cori died in 1957, at the age of 61.

 

SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION

From her first encounters with science and medicine in medical school until the very last decade of her career, Gerty Cori’s life was characterised by little recognition and an undervaluation of her outstanding skills. Although she was one of the world’s leading scientists in her field by the age of 30, she spent most of her life working as an assistant. It was only in 1944 that she was finally hired as a full professor; however, this position wasn’t offered to her in recognition of her talents but rather as the consequence of the necessities of the war period, when the demand for women scientists grew due to the sudden shortage of men2 (p. 107).

Even though her entire career was shaped by the rules of patriarchy and restrictive laws on nepotism, directed and enforced strictly against women, Gerty Cori always had her husband’s trust and support. They kept collaborating despite the discouraging environment4 (p. 15-16). Their early work in Buffalo was mostly focused on the processes of carbohydrate metabolism in the body. Back then, they used whole animals for their experiments, following the system used by Frederick Banting and Charles Best on their work on insulin in the 1920s. Later they started using tissue preparations for their tests on glycogen and the identification of enzymes. In her later work Gerty Cori used specific enzymes to determine glycogen’s molecular structure3 (p. 61).

Despite being respected by all scientists working in the Cori laboratory, Gerty still lacked proper recognition on a broader level. Even after winning the Nobel Prize, and heading one of the most popular and productive laboratories of the time, where she collaborated with some of the greatest scientists from different parts of the world, such as Severo Ochoa, Christian Duve, Arthur Kornberg, and Luis Leloir2 (p.106-107), Gerty Cori remained just Mrs. Cori in the public eye. Additionally, whereas the Cori cycle was a result of their balanced collaboration, the honours given to them were not equal. Gerty Cori was excluded from some of the many awards given only to Carl, like the Albert Lasker Awards for the American Public Health Association and the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Willard Gibbs Medal5 (p. 152).

 

SHE SAID IT

I believe that in art and science are the glories of the human mind. I see no conflict between them. In the past they have flourished together during the great and happy periods of history and those men seem to me short-sighted who think that by suppressing science they will release other creative qualities. It may be, however, that the present period is more favourable to the development of science than of art.

Cited by Larner, Joseph (1992), “Gerty Theresa Cori” in Biographical Memoirs vol 61, National Academy of Sciences, 110—135, <https://www.nap.edu/read/2037/chapter/8> (last accessed 12 Jan. 2017), p.126.

For a research worker, the unforgotten moments of my life are those rare ones which come after years of plodding work, when the veil over nature’s secret seems suddenly to lift, and when what was dark and chaotic appears in a clear and beautiful light and pattern.

Cited by Larner, Joseph (1992), “Gerty Theresa Cori” in Biographical Memoirs vol 61, National Academy of Sciences, pp. 110-135, <https://www.nap.edu/read/2037/chapter/8> (last accessed 12 Jan. 2017), p. 127.

 

PRIZES, ACHIEVEMENTS, HONOURS

1947: Nobel Prize in Physiology Or Medicine, with her husband Carl F. Cori for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen
1946: Midwest Award, from the American Chemical Society with her husband Carl F. Cori
1947: Squibb Award in Endocrinology, with her husband Carl F. Cori
1948: Garvan–Olin Medal
1948: St. Louis Award
1949: Iota Sigma Pi National Honorary Member
1950: Sugar Research Prize
1951: Borden Award
1953: Fellow of the American Academy Of Arts and Sciences
1998: inductee in the National Women’s Hall Of Fame

Gerty Cori received several Doctor of Science degrees. She was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as board member of the National Science Foundation. In 2004, the Cori cycle was recognized by the American Chemical Society as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at the Washington University School of Medicine.

 

INTERTEXTUAL MATERIALS

    

Ignotofsky, Rachel (2016), Gerty Cori, illustration, in “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World”.

 

WORKS BY GERTY CORI

with Carl F. Cori, “The Enzymatic Conversion of Phosphorylase A to B” (1945), The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 158, pp. 321-332, <http://www.jbc.org/content/158/2/321.full.pdf> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2017).

with Carl F. Cori, “Carbohydrate metabolism” (1946), Annual Review of Biochemistry, 15, pp. 193-218.

with Colowick, Sydney P / Carl F. Cori / Milton W. Slein, “The effect of adrenal cortex and anterior pituitary extracts and insulin on the hexokinase reaction”, Journal of Biological Chemistry, 168, pp. 583-596, <http://www.jbc.org/content/168/2/583.full.pdf> (last accessed 10 Jan. 2017).

with Carl F. Cori, “Polysaccharide Phosphorylase” (1947/1964), in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1942-1962, Amsterdam, Elsevier Publishing Company.

“Biochemical aspects of glycogen deposition disease” (1958), Bibliotheca Paediatrica, 14 (66), pp. 344-358.

 

FURTHER READING

Cohn, Mildred (1995), “Carl and Gerty Cori”, in Creative Couples in the Sciences (Lives of Women in Science), ed. Helena M. Pycior, Nancy G. Slack, Pnina G. Abir–Am, New Jersey, Piscataway, pp. 72-85.

Leroy, Francis (2003), A century of Nobel Prizes recipients: chemistry, physics, and medicine, CRC Press.

Opfell, Olga S. (1978), The Lady Laureates: Women Who Have Won the Nobel Prize, Metuchen, N.J. & London, Scarecrow Press, pp. 183-139.

Severo, Ochoa (1958), “Gerty T. Cori, Biochemist”, Science 128, p. 16.

Smeltzer, Ronald K. / Robert J. Ruben / Paulette Rose (2013), Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achevement, New York, Grolier Club.

 

WORKS CITED

  1. 1“Gerty Cori – Facts”, Nobelprize.org, Nobel Media AB 2014, <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1947/cori-gt-facts.html> (last accessed 12 Jan. 2017).
  2. Bertsch McGrayne, Sharon (2002), Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries, Washington DC, Joseph Henry Press.
  3. Reynolds, Moira Davison (1999), American Women Scientists: 23 Inspiring Biographies, 1900—2000, Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company Inc.
  4. Swaby, Rachel (2015), Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, New York, Broadway Books.
  5. Rayner–Canham, Marelene / Geoffrey Rayner–Canham (2001), Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, Philadephia, PA, Chemical Heritage Foundation.

 

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