The name of Gerty Theresa Cori is acknowledged among the greatest women achievers of the 20th century. This American biologist is known for her discoveries in biochemistry, especially carbohydrate metabolism. Her contributions in the field of biology led her to be the first American woman to achieve the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which she shared with her husband Carl Ferdinand Cori and Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay in 1947.
Life, Education and Career:
Gerty Theresa Cori was born on August 15, 1896 in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Until the age of ten she was educated at her home after which she was enrolled in a Lyceum for girls. As a child Gerty became interested in science and mathematics and entered the Realgymnasium at Tetschen (now in the Czech Republic), from which she graduated in 1914. She then joined the Medical School of the German University of Prague. Here she met Carl Ferdinand Cori, a fellow student who shared her hobbies of skiing, gardening and mountain climbing and her interest in laboratory research. Both of them enjoyed working together and during 1920 they published the results of their first research collaboration, completed their graduation, and got married.
Gerty Cori’s first research position was as an assistant in the Karolinen Children’s Hospital in Vienna. In 1922 Carl Cori immigrated to the United States, having accepted a job at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York. Gerty Cori stayed behind for a few months, initially continuing to work as an assistant pathologist at the Institute and later rising to assistant biochemist. After six months, Gerty obtained a position at the same institute as Carl, and she joined him in Buffalo. In 1928 they became U.S. citizens.
Wanting to continue to work together, in 1931 Carl Cori took the position of chairman of the Department of Pharmacology of the Washington University School of Medicine. Gerty was offered employment there too, but as a research associate, regardless of her equivalent degrees and comparable research experience. In 1943 she was appointed as an associate professor of Research Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology and two months after she received her Nobel Prize in 1947, she was promoted to the rank of professor of Biological Chemistry.
During the 1930s and 1940s both husband and wife began studying carbohydrate metabolism and continued the research in their laboratory at Washington University. Their laboratory gained an international standing as an important center of biochemical advancements. In 1947 the Cori’s won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for their pivotal studies in elucidating the nature of sugar metabolism.
The Cori Cycle:
The process of sugar metabolism is named after its discoverers which established how cells use food and convert it into energy in the muscles using a cyclical process. It is also known as the Lactic acid cycle.
In 1936 they discovered that glucose-1-phosphate (also called cori ester) is stored in the muscles. The couple also determined that glycogen phosphorylase was the enzyme that breaks down glycogen to obtain glucose.
They demonstrated how muscle glycogen (this is how sugar is stored in the muscles) is broken down to lactic acid and is then transported to the liver where it is converted to glucose and then returned back to the muscle to be used again as an energy source.
Later Life and Death:
In 1947 Gerty Cori showed the symptoms of myelofibrosis, a disease she fought for 10 years, refusing to give up her research until the last few months of her life. She died on October 26, 1957, aged 61.
Besides the Nobel Prize she was also honored with the Garvan Medal for women chemists of the American Chemical Society as well as membership in the National Academy of Sciences. The crater Cori on the Moon is named after her. She also shares a star with her husband on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.