Gerty Theresa Cori (1896-1957)

Renowned Biochemist, America’s First Woman Nobel Laureate

The Cori Cycle — the process of sugar metabolism — is named after husband-and-wife team Gerty Theresa Cori and Carl Ferdinand Cori (1896-1984), the couple responsible for helping us understand how cells use food and convert it to energy through a cyclical process in the muscles. Their landmark carbohydrate research not only led to the development of treatments for diabetes, it also made them winners of the 1947 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and Gerty the first American woman Nobel laureate in science.

From Medical School to Medical Breakthrough

Born in Prague, Gerty Cori was one of few women to enter the Medical School of the German University of Prague. She met husband Carl in her first year and after graduation, the couple moved to Vienna and married. While Carl was afforded the opportunity to work at the University of Vienna’s medical clinic and Pharmacological Institute, Gerty could only work as assistant at the Karolinen Children’s hospital because of her gender.

In 1922, Carl Cori accepted a biochemistry position at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease in Buffalo, NY. Again, Gerty was forced to take a lower level position as assistant pathologist, even though she held the same degree and level of research experience as her husband. Their joint work began three years later, during which time she was appointed assistant biochemist.

Initially during the 1920s (when the two became U.S. citizens), the Cori’s collaborated on metabolism of tumors. Later, they turned their attention to carbohydrate metabolism, studying how the body makes and stores energy. Little was known about how the body maintained a constant supply of energy. In 1936, they discovered glucose-1-phosphate, a derivative of glucose, the form in which sugar, or glucose, is stored in muscles. Known as the Cori ester, it is an important part of the glucose conversion process. They also identified phosphorylase, the enzyme that breaks down glycogen in the Cori ester. Based on their findings, the Coris were able to show how muscle glycogen (the form in which sugar is stored in muscles) is broken down to lactic acid; transported to the liver, where it gets converted to glucose; then cycled back to the muscle to serve as an energy source.

Recognizing Gerty

Gerty Cori was finally promoted to positions equal to her talent. At Washington University in St. Louis, she was appointed research associate in 1938 and associate professor of research in 1940. In 1947, the Coris earned the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen.” On the heels of her worldwide recognition, the University would finally place her in the position of full professor. Unfortunately in that year, Gerty Cori was diagnosed with bone marrow disease. She succumbed to the disease in 1957, dying from liver failure.

Though the couple received many awards, Gerty Cori was excluded from some of the recognition. While all their work was collaborative, she wasn’t elected to the National Academy of Science until eight years after her husband’s election. Carl was the sole recipient of the Albert Lasker Award for the American Public Health Association and the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Willard Gibbs Medal. Gerty did receive the Society’s Garvan Medal in 1948, awarded to women for their excellence in the chemical field.

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Sources

  1. Rayner-Canham, Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner. (1998). Women in biochemistry. Women in chemistry: Their changing roles from alchemical times to the mid-twentieth century (pp. 150-152). Danvers, MA: American Chemical Society and Chemical Heritage Foundation.
  2. Trescott, Martha M. Women in chemistry. (1990). Women of science (pp. 316-318). Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
  3. McGrayne, Sharon B. Gertrude Belle Elion. (1998). Nobel Prize Women in Science. (pp. 93-116). Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.
  4. Carl Ferdinand Cori and Gerty Theresa Cori. (n.d.). Chemistry in History. Retrieved from http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/chemistry-in-history/themes/biomolecules/proteins-and-sugars/cori-and-cori.aspx.
  5. Cori, Carl and Gerty. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.chemistryexplained.com/Co-Di/Cori-Carl-and-Gerty.html.
Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori, M.D.
Courtesy of Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine