This Day in Jewish History / Scientist Wins Nobel, Breaks Glass Ceiling

Gerty Theresa Cori worked for decades side by side with her husband on research that became important in the treatment of diabetes. On this day, they shared a Nobel Prize.

On December 10, 1947, Gerty Theresa Cori was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with her husband and professional partner, Carl F. Cori, and the Argentine scientist Bernardo A Houssay. In doing so, Gerty Cori became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in this category, and the first Jewish woman to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences in general. Beyond her significant scientific achievements, Cori's entire career reflects an unending struggle to attain recognition by an academic establishment that refused to acknowledge that she and her husband were equal partners in their research and that their need and desire to work together was mutually beneficial.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born August 15, 1896, in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both her parents were Jewish and had her educated at home until age 10. Her father was a chemist who managed sugar refineries. (Ironically, he developed diabetes toward the end of his life, and, according to Gerty Cori’s son, told her she should develop a cure for the disease.) When she was 16, Radnitz decided she wanted to study medicine, something she was encouraged to do by an uncle who was a professor of pediatrics at the Charles-Frederick University in Prague. It was there she met Carl F. Cori. In 1920, they both graduated from medical school, published their first paper based on collaborative research, and got married, after Gerty converted to Catholicism.

In 1922, the couple moved to the United States, where Carl had been offered a position at what is today the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Six months later, Gerty was able to join him after finally receiving an appointment as her husband’s research assistant. Their work on tumors led them to research into the carbohydrate metabolism, that is, the process by which carbohydrates are converted into energy by the body. Together they published 50 papers on the topic, with credit for primary author going to the one who had taken the leading role in the research. In 1929, they proposed what became known as the “Cori cycle,” which describes the process by which the body continues to create energy even when there is insufficient oxygen available to produce glucose, and to regulate the levels of the various compounds involved in the process. It was for this work that the couple received the Nobel Prize in 1947, sharing it 50-50 with physiologist Houssay, who worked independently on another aspect of the cycle in animals.

In 1931, after publishing their work on the Cori cycle, and after being turned down by several institutions not interested in hiring a married couple, Carl and Gerty Cori moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Carl took a position at Washington University, and Gerty was offered a job as his research assistant at a salary one-tenth of his. Only in 1943 was she made an associate research professor, and shortly before the announcement of the Nobel Prize did she become a full professor.

The Coris continued working together until Gerty’s death, a decade after winning the prize, and their focus remained on glucose conversion, including work that became important in the treatment of diabetes.  During the last decade of her life, she suffered from myelosclerosis, a bone marrow disease, but she continued to work until shortly before her death, on October 26, 1957.  The couple had a son, Tom Cori, a chemist and former CEO of the St. Louis biotech firm Sigma-Aldrich, who is married to Anne Cori, a chef and the daughter of conservative anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schafly.

In a statement she gave about her life, work and philosophy to journalist Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” series of radio broadcasts in the 1950s, Gerty Cori explained where she derived satisfaction from: “As a research worker, 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.”

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