Cori, Gerty

August 15, 2011

Gerty Cori discovered her interest in biochemistry during her first year of medical school. At that time, however, she probably never imagined this interest would culminate in the honor of being the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Gerty Cori was born Gerty Theresa Radnitz in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), on August 15, 1896. She was the oldest of Otto and Martha Radnitz’s three daughters. Her family was a wealthy Jewish family, allowing Gerty to be privately tutored at home until age 10. When Gerty turned 10 years old, she was sent to a girls’ finishing school to learn about culture and social grace. By the age of 16, however, Gerty, perhaps influenced by an uncle who was a professor in pediatrics, decided to attend medical school. Since the training she received during her years of finishing school did not include lessons in math and science, Gerty found herself facing a huge challenge. Before Gerty could enter medical school, she had to master 8 years of Latin and 5 years of mathematics, chemistry, and physics.

Gerty began to educate herself the summer of her 16th year. While on summer vacation with her family, she met a high school teacher who offered to tutor her in Latin. By the end of that summer, Gerty had mastered 3 years of Latin. That fall, Gerty enrolled in a Realgymnasium in order to study the remaining courses she would need to enter medical school. She graduated from the Realgymnasium in 1914, and passed the entrance exam for medical school at the age of 18.

Gerty enrolled in the medical school at the German branch of the University of Prague, one of the oldest and most distinguished of European universities. There Gerty discovered both a love for biochemistry, and a 17-year-old named Carl Cori. Gerty and Carl met in anatomy class, and teamed up for laboratory research in biochemistry. They quickly found that they also shared an interest in the outdoors, literature, music, and art. Gerty and Carl worked well as a team, jointly publishing the results of their collaboration on an immunological study. In 1920, Gerty and Carl graduated from medical school, and were married within the year.

The couple moved to Vienna, where Gerty took a job working for the Karolinen Children’s Hospital. During her employment there, Gerty studied and published papers on cretinism (congenital thyroid deficiency). The couple soon decided, however, to leave Europe. By 1922, Carl had accepted a biochemist position at the New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (now known as the Roswell Park Memorial Institute). Carl secured an assistant pathologist position for Gerty, and she joined him in America 6 months later. The couple worked at the Institute for the next 9 years, during which they published more than 50 papers. In addition, Gerty published another 11 on her own. The Coris became American citizens in 1928.

During their 9 years at the Institute, the couple became increasingly interested in how the body transfers energy from one place to another. By 1929, the couple could explain how mammals get their energy for heavy muscular exercise. The couple discovered that energy moves in a cycle from the muscle to the liver, and then back to the muscle. When a mammal uses a muscle, glycogen, a starch-like substance, in the muscle is converted into a sugar called glucose. The muscle extracts energy from the glucose, but some glucose remains as lactic acid. The body, using the liver, recycles the lactic acid back into sugar. The sugar then returns to the muscle, where it is converted into glycogen. Although the Coris called the cycle “the cycle of carbohydrates,” the world has come to know it as the “Cori cycle.”

As this research had little to do with research on cancer, the Coris began to look for opportunities with other institutions. Due to nepotism laws, universities were only willing to offer a position to Carl. Refusing job offers if both Carl and Gerty could not be hired, in 1931, the couple finally accepted two positions at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. Carl was hired as chairman of the Department of Pharmacology, while Gerty was only given a research assistant position. Gerty would hold this position for 13 years, until she was made an associate professor in 1944. In 1947, Gerty was finally made a full professor.

During their employment at Washington University, the Coris continued their research. They not only discovered a new glucose compound, glucose-1-phosphate (or Cori ester), but that this compound was the product of the first step in a three-step process of breaking glycogen into sugar. By 1938, the Coris began research on enzymes, discovering phosphorylase, an enzyme involved with the carbohydrate cycle. It was this discovery that led to both Carl and Gerty being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1947. The Coris shared the Nobel Prize with Bernardo A. Houssay, an Argentinean researcher who had conducted research on a hormone in the carbohydrate cycle.

In 1947, Gerty Cori learned she was suffering from a disease of the bone marrow. Surviving the next 10 years through continuous blood transfusions, Gerty expanded her research with enzymes. She eventually demonstrated that four inherited diseases that usually killed the patient in early childhood, resulted from a lack of certain enzymes in the carbohydrate cycle. Her discovery marked the first time an inherited disease was shown to result from a lack of certain enzymes, and opened up for study the entire field of genetic diseases.

Before Gerty Cori succumbed to her disease on October 26, 1957, she had published 200 scientific papers, had become the fourth woman to be made a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was appointed by President Truman to the board of the National Science Foundation, and received numerous awards in recognition of her contributions to science.

SEE ALSO: Women in the Health Professions, Discrimination, Genetic counseling


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