October 26, 1957 – First American Woman Nobel Laureate Passes Away

American biochemist and Nobel Prize winner Gerty Theresa Cori. Photo: National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

American biochemist and Nobel Prize winner Gerty Theresa Cori. Photo: National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

On October 26, 1957, biochemist Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori passed away at home from complications of myelosclerosis. Gerty had been born sixty-one years earlier in Prague. Her father was a successful chemist, inventor, and sugar factory manager and her family participated in a culturally sophisticated circle which included author Franz Kafka. The Radnitz’ were Jewish. Gerty’s uncle, a professor of pediatrics, supported her in her desire to become a doctor at a time when women were discouraged from pursuing a career in science or medicine. In 1914, at age 18, Gerty entered the Karl-Ferdinands-Universitat medical school in Prague. She received her Doctorate in Medicine in 1920 and married fellow student Carl Cori the same year. Gerty was a vital, charming young woman who loved her studies, the outdoors, and mountain climbing. She converted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry Carl within his religious tradition.

Together, Carl and Gerty embarked on careers in research. They began in Vienna, but Gerty’s poor health due to post-World War I food shortages, and the increasing atmosphere of anti-Semitism prompted their emigration to America. First at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York (now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute) and finally at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, the Coris made investigating carbohydrate metabolism their life’s work. Carl’s opportunities, and pay, were always greater that Gerty’s. Despite repeated institutional pressure to drop her as a research partner, Carl insisted on Gerty’s continued participation. They published many papers together and completed their ground-breaking work on carbohydrate metabolism. In 1947, Carl and Gerty Cori were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

What the Coris discovered – and is now called the Cori cycle – is the reversible process by which our cells break down glycogen into glucose for fuel or reconstitute glucose into glycogen to store for future energy needs. They specifically identified the “Cori ester”, the compound glucose 1-phosphate (and the enzyme that enabled its formation). The Cori ester is the key to the glycogen-glucose-glycogen pathway. Gerty Cori later went on to study diseases attributable to defects in the glucose metabolism-related enzyme, including diabetes.

Gerty won several prestigious awards during her lifetime. As a Nobel Prize winner in 1947, she became only the third woman laureate in history and the first American woman so honored. In 1953, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Two Cori craters – one on the moon, one of Venus – were named after her. In April, 2008, the US Postal Service created a stamp in her memory. The American Chemical Society recognized the carbohydrate metabolism work of Carl and Gerty Cori with National Historic Chemical Landmark status in 2004.

Gerty suffered from increasingly poor health from myelosclerosis – a disease involving loss of bone marrow – during the last ten years of her life. In spite of pain and difficulty, she carried on her work as a professor and researcher at Washington University School of Medicine. Her discoveries, as acknowledged by the postage stamp bearing her likeness, “contributed to the understanding and treatment of diabetes and other metabolic diseases.” She was a pioneer in life and science, an example still of courage, determination, and passionate pursuit of a life worth living.

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