GERTY THERESA CORI (1896 – 1957)

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cori 6Gerty Theresa Cori (née Radnitz; August 15, 1896 – October 26, 1957) was an American biochemist who became the third woman—and first American woman—to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Cori was born in Prague (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Czech Republic). Growing up at a time when women were marginalized in science and allowed few educational opportunities, she gained admittance to medical school, where she met her future husband Carl Ferdinand Cori; upon their graduation in 1920, they married. Because of deteriorating conditions in Europe, the couple emigrated to the United States in 1922. Gerty Cori continued her early interest in medical research, collaborating in the laboratory with Carl. She published research findings coauthored with her husband, as well as publishing singly. Unlike her husband, she had difficulty securing research positions, and the ones she obtained provided meager pay. Her husband insisted on continuing their collaboration, though he was discouraged from doing so by the institutions that employed him.

With her husband Carl and Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay, Gerty Cori received the Nobel Prize in 1947 for the discovery of the mechanism by which glycogen—a derivative of glucose—is broken down in muscle tissue into lactic acid and then resynthesized in the body and stored as a source of energy (known as the Cori cycle). They also identified the important catalyzing compound, the Cori ester. In 2004, both Gerty and Carl Cori were designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in recognition of their work in clarifying carbohydrate metabolism.

In 1957, Gerty Cori died after a ten-year struggle with myelosclerosis. She remained active in the research laboratory until the end. She has received recognition for her achievements through multiple awards and honors. The crater Cori on the Moon is named after her.

Life and Work

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born into a Jewish family in Prague in 1896. Her father, Otto Radnitz, was a chemist who became manager of sugar refineries after inventing a successful method for refining sugar. Her mother, Martha, a friend of Franz Kafka, was a culturally sophisticated woman. She was tutored at home before enrolling in a Lyceum for girls, and at the age of 16 she decided she wanted to be a medical doctor. Her uncle, a professor of pediatrics, encouraged her to attend medical school, so she studied for and passed the University entrance examination. She was admitted to the medical school of the Karl-Ferdinands-Universität in Prague in 1914 and was awarded a Doctorate in Medicine in 1920. While studying she met Carl Cori who was immediately attracted to her charm, vitality, sense of humor and her love of the outdoors and mountain climbing. They married in 1920 following graduation. Gerty converted to Catholicism, enabling her and Carl to marry in the Roman Catholic Church. They moved to Vienna, Austria, where Gerty spent the next two years at the Carolinen Children’s Hospital, and her husband worked in a laboratory. While at the hospital, Gerty Cori worked on the pediatrics unit and conducted experiments in temperature regulation, comparing temperatures before and after thyroid treatment, and published papers on blood disorders. Life was difficult following World War I, and Gerty suffered from xerophthalmia caused by severe malnutrition due to food shortages. These problems, in conjunction with the increasing anti-Semitism, contributed to the Coris’ decision to leave Europe.

cori 5In 1922, the Coris both immigrated to the United States (Gerty six months after Carl because of difficulty in obtaining a position there) to pursue medical research at the “State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases” (now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute) in Buffalo, New York. In 1928, they became naturalized citizens of the United States.

Although the Coris were discouraged from working together at Roswell, they continued to do so, specializing in investigating carbohydrate metabolism. They were particularly interested in how glucose ismetabolized in the human body and the hormones that regulate this process. They published fifty papers while at Roswell, with first author status going to the one who had done most of the research for a given paper. Gerty Cori published eleven articles as the sole author. In 1929, they proposed the theoretical cycle that later won them the Nobel Prize, the Cori cycle. The cycle describes how the human body uses chemical reactions to break some carbohydrates such as glycogen in muscle tissue into lactic acid, while synthesizing others.

The Coris left Roswell in 1941 after publishing their work on carbohydrate metabolism. A number of universities offered Carl a position but refused to hire Gerty. Gerty was informed during one university interview that it was considered “unamerican” for a married couple to work together. They moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1931, where Carl had been offered a research position at Washington University School of Medicine. Despite her research background, Gerty was only offered a position as a research associate at a salary one tenth of that received by her husband; she was warned that she might harm her husband’s career. In 1943, she was made an associate professor of Research Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology. Months before she won the Nobel Prize, she was promoted to full professor, a post she held until her death in 1957.

They continued their collaboration at Washington University. Working with minced frog muscle, they discovered an intermediate compound that enabled the breakdown of glycogen, called glucose 1-phosphate, now known as the Cori ester. They established the compound’s structure, identified the enzyme phosphorylase that catalyzed its chemical formation, and showed that the Cori ester is the beginning step in the conversion of the carbohydrate glycogen into glucose (large amounts of which are found in the liver). It can also be the last step in the conversion of blood glucose to glycogen, as it is a reversible step.

Gerty and Carl Cori collaborated on most of their work, including that which eventually led to winning the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen”. They received one half the prize, the other half going to Argentine physiologist, Bernardo Houssay “for his discovery of the part played by the hormone of the anterior pituitary lobe in the metabolism of sugar”. They continued through their work to clarify the mechanisms of carbohydrate metabolism, advancing the understanding of the reversible conversion of sugars and starch, findings which proved crucial in the development of treatments for diabetics.

Awards and Recognitions

In 1947 Gerty Cori became the third woman—and first American woman—to win a Nobel Prize in science, the previous recipients beingMarie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie. She was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The crater Cori on the Moon is named after her. She also shares a star with her husband Carl on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Correct formula for glucose-1-phosphate shown incorrectly on the US postage stamp

Correct formula for glucose-1-phosphate shown incorrectly on the US postage stamp

Cori was honored by the release of a US Postal Service stamp in April, 2008. The 41-cent stamp was reported by the Associated Press to have a printing error in the chemical formula forglucose-1-phosphate (Cori ester). The stamp is being distributed despite the error. Her description reads: “Biochemist Gerty Cori (1896–1957), in collaboration with her husband, Carl, made important discoveries—including a new derivative of glucose—that elucidated the steps of carbohydrate metabolism and contributed to the understanding and treatment of diabetes and other metabolic diseases. In 1947, the couple was award a half share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.” The other scientists on the “American Scientists” sheet include Linus Pauling, chemist, Edwin Hubble, astronomer, and John Bardeen, physicist.

In 1948, Cori was awarded the Garvan-Olin Medal, an award that recognizes distinguished work in chemistry by American women chemists. She was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as board member of the National Science Foundation, a position she held until her death. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the fourth woman so honored.

In 2004 the research of Gerti and Carl Cori on carbohydrate metabolism was recognized by the American Chemical Society as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Final Years

Just before winning the Nobel prize and while they were on a mountain climbing trip, the Coris learned that Gerty Cori was ill with myelosclerosis, a fatal disease of the bone marrow. She struggled for ten years with the illness while continuing her scientific work; only in the final months did she let up. In 1957, she died in her home. She was survived by her husband and their only child, Tom Cori who married the daughter of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.

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