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20th century Doctor of the Week Nobel Prize

Gerty Cori – the first female Nobel Prize winner

Gerty Cori after facing a lot of obstacles, the highpoint of her career was her Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 – as first woman. Just 2 women won a Nobel Prize in science before: Marie Curie and her daughter Iréne Joliot-Curie.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz (1896-1957) was born in Prague, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her family was part of the Jewish community in Prague: Her mother was a friend of Franz Kafka.

Did you know that …
Gerty was not her nickname, but that her parents named her after an Austrian warship.

Female career in science

Gerty was interested in chemistry and medicine: her father, Otto Radnitz, was a chemist and manager of sugar refineries. She wanted to study science but she lacked the prerequisites in Latin, physics, chemistry and math. Her uncle, a professor of pediatrics, encouraged her to study medicine. In 1914 Gerty was admitted to the medical school at the German Karl-Ferdinands-University in Prague. Back then it was an unusual achievement for a women.

Did you know that …

Gerty wanted to become a physician and managed to study 8 years of Latin, 5 years of science and maths, within a single year.

WWI interrupted the Coris education and Carl needed to fight for the Austrian Army.

Meeting the love of and lab partner for her life

The married research dream team Gerty and Carl Ferdinand Cori

All started in an anatomy class: Gerty met Carl Ferdinand Cori there and they got married after their graduation in 1920. For him Gerty converted to Catholicism. From 1920-1922 they lived in Vienna and Gerty worked at the Carolinen Children´s Hospital on the pediatric unit.

Career in the U.S.

In 1922, they emigrated to the US and continued their research at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, N.Y. Unlike Carl, Gerty faced difficulties in securing her research position and got little payed for the ones she got. But she got all support from Carl: He worked together with her, even though his employing institutions discouraged from doing so. Together they published 50 articles and Gerty published 11 scientific articles as the sole author.

In 1928, they became naturalized citizens, so US citizens. (That is why Gerty is seen as first US woman, who won a Nobel Prize.) A year later, they proposed the concept of the after them named Cori cycle, which describes the chemical reactions to carbohydrates. Some, like glycogen, are broken in muscle tissue into lactic acid; others synthesize.

After their theory of the Cori cycle, Carl got many job offers from different universities all over the country but they refused to hire Gerty. Except the Washington University. There both of them were offered a job in 1931 and so they moved to St. Louis in Missouri.

Despite their research together, Grety worked as a research associate and received a 1/10 of her husbands salary. She was even warned to not harm Carl´s career.
Just in 1943, she was promoted to a full professor. She held this position till her death.

Their reward came in 1947: the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Carl explained their success the following:

Our collaboration began 30 years ago when we were still medical students at the University of Prague and has continued ever since. Our efforts have been largely complementary, and one without the other would not have gone as far as in combination.

Carl Cori at his Nobel Banquet Speech (10th December 1947), on their time working together

1947 – the year of success

The teaching body of the Caroline Institute has decided to award one half of the 1947 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to Professor Carl Cori and Dr. Gerty Cori “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen”, and the other half to Professor Bernardo Houssay “for his discovery of the part played by the hormone of the anterior pituitary lobe in the metabolism of sugar”.

Award Ceremony Speech by Prof. Theorell, Head of the Biochemical Nobel Department of the Royal Caroline Institute
The Coris at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall (10th December 1947). Source: nobelprize.org

In 1947 the Coris received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Gerty was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, and the couple was the third husband-wife team to win Nobel Prizes together.

Tip: For a detailed insight into the research of the Coris I recommend their Nobel Prize Lecture on Polysaccharide phosphorylase from 11st December 1947.

If you wonder where their Nobel Prize medal is now, then check out the video below:

… but private setback

While their career could hardly be any better, Gerty received a shocking diagnosis just before winning the Nobel prize: myelosclerosis. This is a fatal disease that effects the bone marrow.

The illness might be related to her research at Buffalo: She had worked with X-rays, which could have contributed to her illness.

Gerty battled the illness for 10 years till her death. Except for her final months, she continued her research till her death in 1957.

Did you know that …

6 of the scientists the Coris mentored won a Nobel Prize themselves: Christian de Duve, Arthur Kornberg, Edwin G. Krebs, Luis F. Leloir, Severo Ochoa and Earl W. Sutherland.

Some who also worked for them had an extraordinary career, like Mildred Cohn (1913-2009).

Gerty faced many obstacles due to her gender during her lifetime, but today she is the more celebrated Cori. Her pioneer role keeps inspiring many women in science.

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