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First Woman to win Nobel Prize in Medicine

August 23, 2018

 

 

Gerty Theresa Cori -- the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field -- was born on this day in 1896. In collaboration with her husband and lifelong research partner, Carl, Cori made numerous breakthroughs in medical research, including discoveries that paved the way for understanding and developing treatments for diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

Growing up in what is now the Czech Republic, Cori was eager to pursue a higher education at a time when women had few opportunities to study. Encouraged by a supportive family and hoping to go to medical school but lacking the required prerequisites, Cori completed the equivalent of eight years of Latin, five years of science, and five years of math in a single year. She met her future husband in medical school and they married soon after graduating. Due to the difficult conditions in Europe following WWI and, with Cori's Jewish heritage, the rising anti-Semitism in the region, the couple decided to immigrate to the United States in 1922.

Although they were discouraged from working together as a married couple by research institutions, their partnership was tremendously productive, resulting in dozens of papers. Even given her immense productivity, however, Cori repeatedly encountered entrenched sexist hiring practices throughout her career. When Washington University of St. Louis offered both Coris positions in 1931, for example, Gerty was only offered a position as a research associate at a salary one tenth of that received by her husband although their experience and education was identical. It was only after thirteen years -- and just before she won the Nobel Prize -- that she finally attained the same rank as her husband.

Even given these challenges, the Coris continued their pioneering research and discovered the Cori cycle, which showed how the body uses chemical reactions to turn carbohydrates in muscle tissue into lactic acid, then remetabolizes it. They also identified the catalyst for the process, the Cori ester. On her own, Cori also studied glycogen storage disease and became the first person to show that a defect in an enzyme can cause a human disease. The Cori cycle earned the couple the 1947 Nobel Prize which made Gerty Cori the third woman ever -- after Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie -- to win a Nobel Prize in science.

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