I heard a comment the other day that really shocked me. The person was saying that they did not like celebrating March as Women's History Month, or February as Black history month because she felt that it underscored the unusualness of women or blacks succeeding. I was shocked. I view both as the opportunity to highlight the many, many unknown, unsung, accomplishments of both women and blacks. The woman I share with you today, I had not heard of. That is really the whole point of this website, this blog, to uncover and share details about extraordinary women who have been little known, if at all, and celebrate them by sharing them with you.
Gerty Cori was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1896, to Otto Radnitz and Martha Neustadt.
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. Gerty 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, who was a professor of pediatrics, encouraged her to attend medical school.
Pursuing the study of science, She learned that she lacked the prerequisites in Latin, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Over the course of a year, she managed to study the equivalent of eight years of Latin, five years of science, and five years of mathematics
Growing up at a time when women were marginalized in science and allowed few educational opportunities, she did gain admittance to medical school. She was admitted to the German University of Prague, medical school of the Karl-Ferdinands-Universität, where there were only a few female students. She graduated with her M.D. degree in 1920, along with her classmate Carl Cori. They married soon after graduation, and were hired to work in clinics in Vienna.
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.
Carl was drafted into the Austrian army and served during World War I. Life was difficult after the war, 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.
In 1922, they moved to Buffalo, New York, where Carl took a position at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (later the Roswell Park Memorial Institute), and Gerty Cori was hired as an assistant pathologist. She published research findings coauthored with her husband, as well as publishing singly a dozen or so papers. Unlike her husband, she had difficulty securing research positions, and the ones she obtained provided meager pay.
While at Roswell they were discouraged from working together, actually threatened with dismissal, but did so anyway, devoting their efforts to how energy is produced and transmitted in the human body. Specializing in biochemistry, they began studying how sugar (glucose) is metabolized.
In 1929, they described what is known as the Cori cycle; an important part of metabolism. Lactic acid forms when we use our muscles, which is then converted into glycogen in the liver. Glycogen, in turn, is converted into glucose, which is absorbed by muscle cells. The pair continued to investigate how glycogen is broken down into glucose and, in 1938-1939, were able to both identify the enzyme that initiates the decomposition and also to use the process to create glycogen in a test tube.
The couple moved to Washington University in St. Louis in 1931 after both were offered positions there. Gerty Cori worked as a research associate for sixteen years while her husband and colleague, Carl Cori, rose through the ranks at Washington University School of Medicine. When Carl Cori was made chair of the new biochemistry department in 1946, Gerty Cori was promoted to full professor, and the following year both the Coris won the Nobel Prize for discovering the enzymes that convert glycogen to sugar and back again into glycogen. Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori and her husband, Dr. Carl Cori, were the first married couple to receive a Nobel Prize in science. Gerty Cori was only the third woman ever to win a Nobel Prize, and was the first woman in America to do so.
Continuing their earlier research, the Coris made a number of important discoveries clarifying the process of carbohydrate metabolism. They received numerous awards for their isolation and discovery of the compound glucose-1 phosphate (later called the Cori ester), and for their demonstration of the role of lactic acid in the conversion of glucose to muscle glycogen.
In 2004, both Gerty and Carl Cori were designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in recognition of their work in clarifying carbohydrate metabolism. She received recognition for her achievements through multiple awards and honors. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1953. Cori was the fourth women elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She was appointed by President Harry S. Truman as board member of the National Science Foundation.
Gerty was also a member of the American Society of Biological Chemists, the American Chemical Society and the American Philosophical Society. She and her husband were presented jointly with the Midwest Award (American Chemical Society) in 1946 and the Squibb Award in Endocrinology in 1947. In addition, Cori received the Garvan-Olin Medal (1948), the St. Louis Award (1948), the Sugar Research Prize (1950), the Borden Award (1951). She received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from Boston University (1948), Smith College (1949), Yale University (1951), Columbia University (1954), and the University of Rochester (1955).
The crater Cori on the Moon is named after her, as is the Cori crater on Venus. She shares a star with her husband on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998.
Gerty remained active in the research laboratory until the end of her life.