Gertrude ‘Gerty’ Cori

 

Gerty Cori was born August 15, 1896 in Prague, Czechoslovakia in what use to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was privately tutored at home until she was ten and was then sent to girls’ finishing school to learn social graces and some culture enabling her to converse pleasantly with a husband and friends. Gerty’s uncle, a pediatrics professor, encouraged her to attend medical school. Officially, women were allowed to attend Carl Ferdinand University in Prague, but many did not. Latin, mathematics, physics or chemistry was required subjects for entry to the university and while vacationing in Tyrol with her family, she met a high school teacher who taught her Latin. She learned three years of Latin by the end of the summer and by the following year; she took and passed the entranced exam. In 1914, at the age of eighteen, she enrolled in the German branch of the medical school in Prague. It was here that she found her two loves: biochemistry and Carl Cori.

Carl and Gerty had much in common, they both loved mountain climbing, swimming, skating, and tennis. They studied together through medical school spending vacations together outdoors. After graduation, Gerty converted to Catholicism enabling her and Carl to marry in a Roman Catholic Church. In 1921, Gerty worked at the Carolinen Children’s Hospital in Vienna, where she did chemistry work and research and published papers on the thyroid and spleen. In 1922, Carl took a job at the New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York and sent for Gerty six months later after he had secured a position for her as an assistant pathologist at the institute. Nine years later they became American citizens and enjoyed the freedom to pursue research and to publish their own research. During the first two years in Buffalo, Gerty studied the affects of x-rays on the skin and on the metabolism of body organs. By 1929, Carl and Gerty could explain how energy moves in a cycle from muscle to the liver and back again to muscle. Glycogen in the muscles is first converted to sugar and most of the energy is extracted from sugar, but some is left as lactic acid. To conserve resources, the body recycles the lactic acid back into glycogen. In 1938 and 1939, Gerty shifted her direction of research towards enzymology. Soon after, the Cori’s discovered phosphorylase that breaks glycogen down into the Cori ester. It tears apart the bonds that hold glycogen’s sugar molecules together. This was the first time that carbohydrate metabolism was studied at the molecular level. By 1944, Gerty was promoted to associate professor and given tenure at Washington University. By 1947, the Cori’s lab was alive with the study of enzymes. Their lab produced eight Nobel Prize winners.

Gerty worked in the lab on every working day and read excessively. She convinced the library to send her journals before they were put on the shelves. She read five to seven books a week from the Mercantile Library and in advance, arranged for the next week’s readings. She had vast knowledge in political theory, sociology, art and literature. In 1947, Gerty was awarded the Nobel Prize along with her husband. They were the first husband and wife team to receive this award and Gerty was the third woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Science. In 1947, Gerty learned that she had a fatal type of anemia. Her body was producing red blood cells and her bone marrow was being replaced by fibrous tissue. The official diagnosis was agnogenic myeloid dysplasia. She became dependent on blood transfusions made of whole blood. Later, her spleen was removed and her liver took over. She carried on her work despite the trials she faced. After winning the Nobel Prize, she was elected to the National Academy of Science and appointed to the National Science Foundation by Harry S. Truman. She was instrumental in defeating a proposal made by the president of Harvard University in which he did not want the NSF to fund researchers with M.D. degrees for experiments involving animals. She fought back stating that the M.D. trained scientists like herself had won Nobel Prizes. She devoted her remaining years to sorting the glycogen storing diseases. She eventually proved that a defect in or absence of a particular enzyme causes four different diseases. In the summer of 1957, Gerty published her last article, a review of children’s glycogen storage diseases. The month before she died she became bed ridden and a woman who once read five books a week turned to mysteries. On October 26, 1957, Gerty died at age sixty-one at home with her husband by her side. At her funeral, Severo Ochoa, a Nobel Prize winner, summed up Gerty for all of us in saying that she was a human being of great spiritual depth. Modest, kind, generous, and affectionate to a superlative degree and a lover of nature and art.

 

Bibliography

 

McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch, Nobel Prize Women in Science, Carol Publishing Group © 1993, pg. 93-116

Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori. [Online]

http://w3.wo.sbc.edu/pr/obrien99/hall/cori.html

Carl and Gerty Cori. [Online]

http://www.stlouis.mo.us/stlouis/walkofame/inductees/cori.html

 

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