Gerty Radnitz Cori was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1947.
The prize, shared with her husband Carl Cori and Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay, was awarded for the discovery of the metabolic process responsible for the conversion of lactic acid into glucose, known today as the Cori cycle.
After being awarded a PhD from the German University of Prague’s Medical School in 1920, Gerty Radniz married her classmate Carl Cori. The couple emigrated almost immediately to the United States and in 1928 she became a US citizen.
The couple formed a very smooth-working team, where there was no place for competition, also because they had very different skills, which complemented each other perfectly.
As William Daughaday of the Washington School of Medicine said, “Carl was the visionary. Gerty was the lab genius“.
In more than forty years of working together, Gerty and Carl co-authored dozens of studies. And yet, due to the fact that she was a woman, Gerty spent most of her career in her husband’s shadow, encountering hostility from the academic world. In her first job at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York state, the director of the institute threatened to fire Gerty unless she stopped working with her husband, accusing her of standing in the way of Carl’s career and of not respecting American values with her behavior.
In 1931 Gerty and Carl moved to Washington University in Saint Louis. Carl immediately was appointed head of the biochemistry department, whereas Gerty was employed as a research assistant, with a much lower salary than her husband’s. Gerty had to wait until 1947 (the year she won the Nobel Prize) to obtain the same status as Carl.
The day that they were both awarded the Nobel Prize, Carl Cori declared,
That the award should have included my wife as well has been a source of deep satisfaction to me. 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.
Gerty was always an educated, reserved woman with a strong and determined character. She always expected the best from others and from herself. Her emotional involvement and her dedication made her very demanding, both in her private life and during her career.
I believe that the love for and dedication to my work seems to me to be the basis for happiness.
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.
Shortly before receiving the Noel Prize, Gerty discovered that she had myelosclerosis, a rare bone marrow disease. Although seriously ill, she continued her research without ever stopping, spending entire days in the lab. The only luxury that she allowed herself was a little camp bed, which she rested on when she was exhausted. She died in 1957 at the age of 61, after a ten-year fight against the disease.
In their research, Gerty and Cori were interested in how the body uses energy.
In 1929 they described an important metabolism pathway for the first time, explaining how lactic acid is formed when we use our muscles and is then converted into glycogen in the liver.
In 1938-39, Gerty and Carl showed that glycogen is broken down in muscle tissue in the form of lactic acid and is then synthesized back into the body and stored as a source of energy. This mechanism, which is key to understanding of how our body works, today is known as the Cori cycle.
Although Carl and Gerty Cori are known for this discovery in particular, they also made many other contributions to scientific research. They were pioneers in the study of enzymatic and hormonal activity, and their work led to a better understanding of diabetes. When little was still known about enzymes, Gerty and Carl were the first to identify and isolate them. In addition, Gerty started the study of hereditary diseases caused by enzymatic defects.
The precision and accuracy of her measurements became the hallmark of Gerty’s work.
As her biographer, Joseph Larner, wrote, “Gerty was undoubtedly primarily responsible for the development of the quantitative analytical methodology“.
Discover the other stories of the women who changed the history of medicine
Nina Chhita is the artist and illustrator of the Instagram account @nina.draws.scientists, which focuses on contemporary and historical trailblazing scientists, who happen to be women. She initially started the account as a way to discover historical figures, and as a scientist herself, naturally gravitated towards scientists. Articles have since been written about Nina in the BBC news and Mental Floss. Her illustrations have appeared on the social media sites of the University of Oxford, the University of Bath, Dementias Platform UK, and in a YouTube video by Vanessa Hill. She lives in Vancouver where she works as a medical writer creating educational content for healthcare professionals.