Gerty Theresa Cori: Biography, Discovery & Accomplishments

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

Gerty and Carl Cori had an adventurous and loving life, and they answered many important questions about the biochemistry of sugar metabolism. In this lesson, we'll learn about their life and the contributions that led to their joint Nobel Prize.

Gerty Cori

Some people think of scientists as nerdy, indoor types. Gerty Cori's story is one of outdoor adventures, collaboration, feminism, and love. Above all, it's a story of excellence in scientific research. After all, Gerty Cori was the first American woman (and third woman worldwide) ever to win a Nobel Prize in science. She shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with her husband, Carl Cori, in 1947.

It is rumored that Gerty was named after an Austrian warship; however, Gerty Cori was a bringer of health. Dr. Cori was born in Prague. She faced discrimination due to her Jewish heritage and immigrated to the United States. There, she made contributions to how we understand the body's use of glucose.

Gerty and Carl

Gerty Radnitz met her future husband, Carl Cori, in 1914 while they were both students at the Medical School of the German University of Prague. They bonded over their mutual love of skiing and mountain climbing. In short order, the two graduated from medical school, published their first joint research paper, and got married.

Gerty had a hard time finding work because she was Jewish and a woman. Carl was Catholic but disturbed by his employers' insistence that he must prove his Aryan heritage. After a stint in World War I and a few research positions for Carl, the Coris decided to leave Europe because of the increasing anti-Semitism they saw. They were offered their first position in the United States in 1922.

Putting Down Roots

In the U.S., Gerty and Carl found a home first in the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease in Buffalo, New York, and finally settled at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Both the Coris were adamant that they would collaborate, but their employers tried hard to discourage them. At her first position in Buffalo, Gerty was told she'd be fired if she left her lab to collaborate with her husband. However, the couple insisted they work together. Eventually the Washington University School of Medicine allowed them both to work in the same department. Even though both Coris were published researchers with advanced degrees, the School of Medicine gave Gerty a lower position and one-tenth of her husband's salary. The couple worked together until Gerty's death. They were known to finish each other's sentences.

Research

Gerty's dad was diabetic, and Gerty decided to study diabetes at his request. By the time the Coris started their research, it was already known that diabetes came from problems in sugar metabolism, but nobody quite knew how. This direction led to more than three decades of research for the Cori family.

One of the pair's first major breakthroughs came with what is now called the Cori cycle. The Cori cycle shows how insulin helps blood glucose (the sugar your body uses immediately) convert to glycogen (chains of sugar your body uses for storage) in the muscles, which then forms the intermediate form of lactic acid before settling as glycogen in the liver.

Later the Coris discovered a new intermediate molecule in the biochemical pathway of glycogen breakdown, glucose-1-phosphate, which became known as the Cori ester. They also discovered the enzyme involved in this process. The Coris also managed to synthesize glycogen in a test tube, which makes them the first researchers ever to synthesize a biological macromolecule in a test tube.

Overall, the Coris' research led to a much deeper understanding of how our blood sugar is regulated at the biochemical level. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 with the researcher Bernardo Houssay of Argentina. Their son, Tom, later said that while they were excited and honored by the Nobel Prize, they were too busy to stop and celebrate.

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