Courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri
By Nicole Heisick
First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize in Science (1896-1957)
Although born in Prague, Gerty Cori is considered the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in medicine, and the third woman overall to be honored with this distinction. With such a glowing resume, one would have expected job offers to pour in. Despite all her accomplishments, as a woman in her time, Cori was barely able to find a research job and started out with a salary one-tenth of what her husband made. But she found her way onto the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, where she continued her research from 1931 until her death in 1957.
Born August 15, 1886, Cori grew up in Prague before passing her university entrance exam in 1914. She went on to study at the Medical School of the German University of Prague where she received a Doctorate in Medicine in 1920. After graduation, she spent two years working at the Carolinen Children’s Hospital before she moved to America.
Married in 1920, both Cori and her husband Carl worked together in most of their research projects. Their first joint paper was on an immunological study of the complement of human serum. Their joint research continued to grow, sparked by a mutual interest in preclinical sciences.
Aside from personal studies, the Coris were a source of inspiration to their colleagues. They contributed many articles to the Journal of Biological Chemistry and other scientific periodicals.
When they moved to Buffalo, New York, to pursue medical research at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute), they were discouraged from working together—but continued to do so anyway. They were particularly interested in how glucose is metabolized in the human body and in the hormones that regulate this process, publishing 50 papers on the subject. On top of these 50 papers, Cori published 11 papers on her own.
In 1929, they proposed the “Cori cycle,” which won them the Nobel Prize in 1947 for discovering how glycogen is broken down into sugar and then turned back into glycogen. Because she and her husband both became nationalized U.S. citizens in 1928, Cori was considered the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in medicine.
The “Cori cycle” explains the movement of energy within the body Muscle glycogen transforms into sugar (or glucose) to power physical activity. But some of the sugar stays on as lactic acid for later use. The discovery was useful for the treatment of diabetes and was the first time the cycle of carbohydrates in the human body was fully understood and explained.
After publishing their work, the Coris left New York to explore Carl’s many job offers. (None was offered to Gerty.) In 1931, the couple decided to move to St. Louis so Carl could work as the chair of the pharmacology department at Washington University School of Medicine; Gerty was offered a position as a research assistant. She was promoted to full professor in 1946, a year before being awarded the Nobel Prize. Gerty worked for the university until her death on October 26, 1957.
Cori was a member of the American Society of Biological Chemists, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Chemical Society, and the American Philosophical Society. In 2008, Cori was honored by being featured on a stamp by the U.S. Postal Service. Her discoveries improved later researchers’ understanding of human metabolism.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re showcasing our Top 10 Women of Missouri, featured in the February 2012 of Missouri Life and selected by our panelists. To read our panelists’ bios, click here. For a full list of our 95 nominees for Top 10 Women of Missouri, click here. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life magazine.