Gerty Cori

American biochemist who discovered how the body stores and utilizes energy, and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947.

Gerty Cori (1896–1957), Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Featuring artwork by Miler Ximeno Lopez & words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Every scientific discovery hides a story, of inspired minds on the relentless pursuit of truth, and of the journey of the indomitable human spirit in uncovering it. Each of these stories needs to be known. Each of these stories needs to be told.

Of Gerty Cori (1896–1957), who co-discovered the ‘Cori Cycle’- the pathway of conversion of glycogen (stored form of sugar) to glucose (usable form of sugar), is one such story. The Cori cycle is now part of biology textbooks, and the story of its discovery involves overcoming prejudice and discrimination, surviving a war, crossing geographical boundaries, fighting female oppression, and yet never giving up.

“The unforgotten moments of my life are those rare ones which come after years of plodding work, when the veil over nature’s secret seems suddenly to lift, and when what was dark and chaotic appears in a clear and beautiful light and pattern.”- Gerty Cori

Early years in Europe

Gerty Theresa Cori (nee Radnitz). Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born on August 15 1896, to Otto Radnitz and Martha Neustadt in Prague, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Czech Republic). Her family was Jewish and she was the eldest of three sisters. She was home schooled until age 10 and then sent to private school for learning social skills, as was the convention. Gerty wanted to become a doctor, but when she realized that she lacked the required background knowledge of certain subjects, she dedicated a year to study ten year’s equivalent of Latin, and five years equivalent of mathematics, physics and chemistry.

Her hard work paid and she entered the German University of Prague’s Medical School in 1914, when only few female students could do so. She met Carl Ferdinand Cori in Medical School, who shared her interests in research and the outdoors. Yet both were very different in terms of family background, Carl was a Catholic Christian and came from a family of professors. They got married in 1920, the year of their graduation from medical school.

World War I and move to America

World War I had started in 1914, the same year Gerty entered medical school. After receiving their M.D., Gerty and Carl moved to Vienna, Austria. Gerty joined the Carolinen Children’s Hospital where she worked on temperature regulation through hormonal control. But life in Europe was becoming harder by the day. With growing anit-semitism, and because of her gender, it was impossible for Gerty to find an academic position. In addition she suffered from xerophtalmia, resulting from vitamin A deficiency and a poor diet. The Coris decided to look for opportunities to get out of Europe.

Gerty Cori and her husband Carl Cori. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1922 Carl was offered a position as a Biochemist at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (now Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center) in Buffalo, New York. Gerty emigrated to the United States six months later, but she was given the position of Assistant Pathologist. They became naturalized citizens of the U.S. in 1928.

Unperturbed by an unjust system

While the U.S. offered better prospects, Gerty was still unable to get the position she deserved due to her gender. Yet, she never let the titles of her position undermine her dedication to research.

While at Roswell, Gerty and Carl started working on glucose metabolism. In 1929 they proposed the ‘Cori Cycle’. The Cori Cycle or lactic acid cycle, is a metabolic pathway that describes how glycogen stored in the muscles is converted to lactic acid and transported to the liver, where it is converted to glucose, and returned to the muscles to serve as an energy source. Their collaboration resulted in 50 papers together.

Gerty Cori and Carl Cori in their lab at Washington University, St. Louis. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

They were recruited by the Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, in 1931, yet the same story repeated again. Carl became the Professor of Pharmacology, but Gerty was hired as a research associate and was given a fraction of his salary, despite having similar research experience. Unperturbed, she continued her work, and started collaborating on the enzymatic breakdown of glycogen.

They discovered the enzyme Phosphorylase, which breaks down muscle glycogen, and identified glucose-1-phosphate (or Cori ester) as the first intermediate in the reaction. Most remarkably, they could reverse the reaction and created glycogen in a test tube, pioneering a new method of doing experiments outside the cell!

Fame and recognition

Gerty received many awards and fellowships in her career. Most notable of which was the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1947, which she shared with her husband Carl Cori and Argentinian biochemist Bernardo Houssay. She became the first American woman, and the third woman (after Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie) in the world to win the prize.

Gerty Cori and Carl Cori at the Nobel Prize ceremony. Image source: Wikimedia commons.
Stamp comemorating Gerty Cori. Image source: USPS.

She was finally promoted to the position of Professor at the Washington University in 1947, a few months before her Nobel win. The same year she was diagnosed with myelosclerosis, a rare form of bone marrow cancer. She struggled with the disease for the next ten years of her life, and succumbed to it in 1957. Even in her illness, she never stopped working and was in the lab until the final months of her life. Despite being short changed often in her lifetime, today she has become the more famous Cori, and her legacy lives on to inspire us.

Timeline:

1896- Born on August 15th, in Prague, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Czech Republic)

1914- Started Medical School

1920- Received MD from German University of Prague’s Medical School

1920- Married Carl Ferdinand Cori

1922- Moved to the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases, Buffalo New York as an Assistant Pathologist

1928- Acquired American citizenship

1929- Proposed the ‘Cori Cycle’ for Glycogen Metabolism

1931- Moved to Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri as Research Associate

1936- Gave birth to her son Thomas Cori

1947- Received the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine

1947- Promoted to Professor position at Washington University

1957- Died in St. Louis, Missouri, US

About the author:

DR. SUMBUL JAWED KHAN

Content Editor, Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:

MILER XIMENA LÓPEZ

Contributing Artist Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate stories

Expressing myself graphically has always been a source of great satisfaction for me. With my work, I can provide many things to others in different positive ways, as well as get a lot in return, because in every goal achieved, in every process, there is a lot to learn.

About the series:

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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