Cori, Gerty T. (1896–1957)
Cori, Gerty T. (1896–1957)
American physician and biochemist, known for her research on the metabolism of carbohydrates in animals, who was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1947 for discovering the process by which glycogen is converted to sugar. Pronunciation: KOR-ee. Born Gerta Theresa Radnitz on August 15, 1896, in Prague, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Czech Republic); died in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 26, 1957; daughter of Otto Radnitz (a chemist and businessman) and Martha (Neustadt) Radnitz; Realgymnasium of Tetschen, 1914; German University of Prague Medical School, M.D., 1920. married Carl Ferdinand Cori, on August 5, 1920; children: Carl Thomas Cori, 1936.
Was a student assistant at German University of Prague (1917–19); worked as assistant at the Children's Hospital of Vienna (1920–22); was assistant pathologist (1922–25) and assistant of biochemistry (1925–31) at the New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases; was assistant professor, University of Buffalo (1930–31) and Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis; worked as a research associate in pharmacology (1931–43); was an associate professor of biochemistry (1943), and full professor (1947).
In 1947, Gerty Cori and her husband Carl were awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the enzymes that convert glycogen into glucose and then back again into glycogen. They shared the award with Bernardo Houssay who was honored for his work with pituitary hormones. Gerty Cori was the first woman from America and the third woman worldwide to earn the Nobel Prize. It was common knowledge within the American scientific community that the Coris worked as a closely knit team and considered each other as equal partners; the pair studied together, shared a laboratory, worked on the same projects, and co-published numerous scientific papers. Gerty was known as the lab genius, while Carl was the visionary. "Our efforts have been largely complementary," said Carl, as he thanked the Nobel committee, "and one without the other would not have gone as far as in combination."
Their discovery was considered to be one of the most brilliant and important contributions to modern biochemistry, yet throughout her career Gerty was often assumed to be Carl's assistant and was employed in lesser positions than her husband. Even after she received the Nobel Prize, some prominent scientific organizations, including the American Chemical Society (ACS), honored Carl but not Gerty, though in 1948 the ACS did award Gerty the Garvan Medal, the society's prize to an outstanding woman chemist. She was also honored with other prizes and awards, received several honorary degrees, and belonged to several professional groups. In addition, President Harry Truman appointed her to the board of directors of the National Science Foundation, and she was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998.
Tragically, just as Gerty's many years of research were finally recognized in the form of the prestigious Nobel Prize, she was diagnosed with a fatal form of anemia. For the remaining years of her life, she maintained her relentless style of research and devoted herself to studying glycogen storage diseases in children. During this time, she identified four different diseases and essentially generated the field of genetic diseases, a major scientific achievement that was described by Herman Kalckar as "unmatched."
Gerty Theresa Cori was born on August 15, 1896, in Prague, which at the time belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Raised in a moderately wealthy Jewish family, she was the eldest of three daughters born to Otto and Martha Neustadt Radnitz . When Gerty was a child, girls from her social class were expected to learn the social graces and enough cultural trivia to carry on an informed conversation. Gerty had private tutors for her primary education and then went to a Lyceum for girls for high school. Her uncle, who was a professor of pediatrics, encouraged Gerty to obtain the necessary education to attend medical school. At that time, girls' schools did not offer the courses required to enter the university, such as Latin, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Gerty solved that problem by studying these subjects on her own, with the aid of a teacher whom she had met while on vacation with her family. By 1914, when she was 18 years old, she passed the medical school entrance exam.
Art and science are the glories of the human mind. I see no conflict between them.
Although Gerty was primarily interested in medical research, it was customary to obtain the training of a medical doctor, and she subsequently enrolled in the medical school at the German University of Prague. There, she met Carl Cori, who was also a medical student, but Carl's education, and his relationship with Gerty, was interrupted by the First World War when he was drafted into the Sanitation Corps of the Austrian army. Upon his return, the couple resumed their courtship and both graduated from medical school. They married in 1920 against the wishes of Carl's family. The senior Coris felt that their son's career would be jeopardized by his marrying a Jew, even though Gerty converted to Catholicism so that their wedding could take place in the Roman Catholic Church.
At this time, Eastern Europe was in the midst of hardship: the political situation was un-stable, starvation was rampant, and anti-Semitism on the rise. Medical research was given low-priority, but medical doctors were in high demand, so Gerty worked as a physician at the Karolinen Children's Hospital in Vienna, where she also researched and published several papers on cretinism (congenital thyroid deficiency). Carl secured employment at the University of Graz, where, in order to get the job, he had to prove that he was not Jewish. Life, for the Coris, was not easy: they lived in two different cities, and Gerty, who was basically working for meals, wanted to be involved with medical research. In addition, the political climate was volatile, with anti-Semitism continually escalating. Consequently, the Coris decided to leave Europe. Carl took a position with the Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York. Gerty remained behind for six months until Carl secured a position for her at the Institute as assistant pathologist.
For the next several years, the Coris established themselves within the medical research community and became American citizens. Although they had well-equipped laboratories and the freedom to collaborate, pursue, and publish their own research, Gerty struggled against a single-minded director. Because he believed that parasites were the causative agent of cancer, Gerty spent fruitless hours searching for parasites in the stool of cancer patients until she refused to look any longer. Angry that she failed to support his etiological theories, the director threatened to fire her and warned her to stay out of her husband's laboratory. Gerty complied for a short time and was soon back collaborating with Carl. Carl, too, received pressure not to work with Gerty. At a job interview, he was told that it was "un-American for a man to work with his wife." Likewise, the same university called Gerty in for an interview and told her that she was "standing in the way" of her husband's career. Fortunately, neither wife nor husband accepted these attitudes, and they continued to conduct their investigations as research partners.
During their years in Buffalo, the Coris became interested in glycogen and glucose synthesis, and, by the late 1920s, they were able to explain the cycle by which, upon physiological demand, glycogen in the muscles is converted to glucose. The muscles use most of the glucose as a source of energy and what is not used is left in the muscles in the form of lactic acid. The body then recycles the lactic acid by way of the liver, which converts the lactic acid into blood glucose for return to the muscle where it is changed back into glycogen. This important discovery became known as the "Cori cycle." Later in their careers, the Coris discovered the specific enzymes that were responsible for the glycogen/glucose conversions, the hormones that affect the enzymes, and diseases that can be caused by an alteration of the enzymes.
The Coris' research did not fully belong in an institute that was specifically devoted to cancer research, so the couple searched for other positions, at a time when women scientists were anything but highly regarded. In addition, many institutions had strict nepotism rules, although husband and wife research teams were not un-common; typically, the husband would be hired as a tenured professor, while the wife would assume the post of an assistant or low-level instructor. A woman's job was safe as long as her relationship with the tenured male endured. Carl was fully aware of the prevailing sexist conditions and, in 1931, managed to find employment at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, which had already hired several female scientists. Carl was director of the pharmacology department, and Gerty was hired as a research associate.
Gerty was known for her precise methods in the laboratory and demanded perfection from herself as well as those around her. The Coris worked six days a week, but during the evenings and on weekends they entertained a great deal and managed to avoid talking about their research. The work that had been accomplished in Buffalo served as the groundwork for her discoveries in St. Louis. The Coris had already demonstrated the glycogen-glucose cycle but aspired to study each step of the cycle on a molecular level. To do so, Gerty and Carl extracted soluble components from frog muscle and analyzed them. In 1936, they isolated a new glucose compound called glucose-1-phosphate from the frog muscle tissue; this new compound became known as the Cori ester. That same year, Gerty gave birth to their only child, Thomas Carl Cori. She worked until it was time for her to be admitted to the maternity hospital and returned to work in her laboratory three days postpartum.
A few years later, the Coris shifted their focus to studying enzymes. At that time, it was known that enzymes control chemical reactions, but very few enzymes had been identified. According to Cori's biographer, Joseph Larner, it was Gerty who provided the decisive influence to study enzymes and was the major contributor to most of the Coris' papers during 1938 and 1939. In 1939, the Coris discovered the enzyme phosphorylase, which breaks down glycogen into the Cori ester. This discovery led to the enzymatic synthesis of glycogen in a test tube, which was the first bioengineering of a large molecule in a test tube, an event of great import because it disproved the thought that large molecules could only be made in living cells. The Coris isolated several enzymes and studied the correlation between the structure and function of a specific enzyme to its ability to start or stop a chemical reaction. The Coris were among a small group of scientists whose research proved how many biological and medical phenomena were a result of a biochemical imbalance and whose findings served as a basis for modern molecular biology.
World War II drastically altered the American workplace as women filled men's jobs. Carl's work shifted toward defense projects while Gerty was left to run the lab on her own. Women scientists were in high demand; as a result, many were finally given positions that matched their credentials. In 1944, Gerty was made associate professor and given tenure at Washington University. As the war was ending, both Gerty and Carl were offered professorships at Harvard University and at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, but Washington University offered Gerty a professorship while Carl was made chair of a new and enlarged biochemistry department. By the late 1940s, the Coris' lab, a hub of activity, was considered to be the center for enzyme research. While Gerty ran the labs, Carl primarily wrote and supervised the younger researchers. Gerty was kind, caring, intense, and explosive. In addition to reading all the newest scientific discoveries, she also read five to seven books a week on a wide range of subject matter, from art to zoology. She could converse knowledgeably about anything, from literature, art, shopping, and child rearing to the structure of a molecule. Carl spoke five languages, played the cello, and wrote poetry.
The Cori lab was known for its nondiscriminatory practices and hired many Jews and women. Gerty focused only on an individual's intellectual integrity, ignoring gender or religion. She encouraged women scientists and provided extra support to those who had children. Outspoken, she was an activist who was very sensitive to women's issues. Generally, in an attempt to appear as serious as their male counterparts, women working in the scientific community usually dressed the part. Gerty and her female coworkers characteristically dressed in dowdy suits. Once in jest, Gerty's co-workers staged a competition for the worst dressed: Gerty won unanimously.
In 1947, Gerty was diagnosed with an un-known form of fatal anemia. It is postulated that the cause was due to the excessive exposure to xrays that she received during her early years in Buffalo when she was studying the effects of xradiation on the skin and on the metabolism of certain body organs. The Coris traveled the world in search of a treatment for her anemia, and she tried many curative therapies, a number of which had damaging side effects. She became dependent on blood transfusions which, because the transfusion was composed of whole blood, caused her body to produce antibodies that made Gerty feel very sick. At one point, she had her spleen removed, which probably prolonged her working years. Sometimes Carl had to carry her around her lab.
Gerty lived for ten years following her diagnosis. In public, she ignored her illness and rarely spoke of it, although she once confided to her friend, Mildred Cohn , "If something like this happens to you, it would be better if a ton of bricks fell on you." During her last days, she was forced to stay in bed. She became frustrated and sad, but she still read voraciously. When she could no longer read anything "serious," she switched to mysteries.
Gerty Cori died at the age of 61 on October 26, 1957. Her funeral was attended by scientists from all over the world. A string quartet played Beethoven and a television excerpt from Gerty's appearance on "This I Believe" was shown: "Honesty, which stands mostly for intellectual integrity, courage, and kindness are still the virtues I admire," she had told her interviewer, newscaster Edward R. Murrow, "though with advancing years the emphasis has been slightly shifted and kindness now seems more important to me than in my youth. The love for and dedication to one's work seems to me to be the basis for happiness. For a research worker, the unforgotten moments of his 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."
Joseph, Bea, and Charlotte Warren Squires, eds. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1947.
Kass-Simon, G., and Patricia Farnes, eds. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Indiana University Press, 1990.
McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch. Nobel Prize Women in Science. Birch Lane Press, 1993.
Singer, Charles, and E. Ashworth Underwood. A Short History of Medicine. 2nd ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 1962.
Ochoa, S., and H. Kalckar. "Gerty T. Cori, Biochemist," in Science. Vol. 128, 1958, pp. 16–17.
Christine Miner Minderovic , B.S., freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan