USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Celebrating Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement: Gerty Theresa Cori!

Gerty Theresa Cori — Biochemist

Often considered one of the greatest women scientists of the 20th century. The first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine; known for her discovery (with husband Carl Cori and physiologist Bernardo Houssay) of how the body metabolizes glucose

Gerty Theresa Cori 2

Born Gerty Theresa Radnitz in 1896 in Prague (then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Czech Republic), Gerty grew up at a time when women were marginalized in science and allowed few educational opportunities. However, at age sixteen and influenced by her uncle, (who was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Prague), Gerty decided to study medicine. She graduated with a medical doctor’s degree in 1920.

It was at medical school that she met her future husband Carl Ferdinand Cori, who was also a med student at her school. Upon their graduation in 1920, they married.

Because of deteriorating conditions in Europe, the couple emigrated to the United States in 1922. Gerty Cori continued her early interest in medical research, collaborating in the laboratory with Carl. She published research findings coauthored with her husband, as well as publishing singly. Unlike her husband, she had difficulty securing research positions, and the ones she obtained provided meager pay. Her husband insisted on continuing their collaboration, though he was discouraged from doing so by the institutions that employed him.

Why She’s Important: Often considered one of the most influential female scientists of the 20th century, Gerty Cori — with her husband Carl and Argentine physiologist Bernardo Houssay — received the Nobel Prize in 1947 for the discovery of the mechanism by which glycogen (a derivative of glucose) is broken down in muscle tissue into lactic acid and then re-synthesized in the body and stored as a source of energy –known as the Cori cycle. Their findings were particularly useful in the development of treatments for diabetes.

With the Nobel honor, Gerty became the third woman—and first American woman—to win a Nobel Prize in science, and the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

She and her husband also identified the important catalyzing compound, the Cori ester. In 2004, both Gerty and Carl Cori were designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in America, recognition of their work in clarifying carbohydrate metabolism.

Other Achievements: In 1952, President Harry S. Truman named her to the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation.

In addition, Gerty received many other honors and awards during her life. Among them: the American Chemical Society Award; the Squibb Award in endocrinology, and the Sugar Research Prize of the National Academy of Sciences. She received honorary degrees from Smith College, Yale University and Rochester University. She was also one of twelve women honored at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. in 1949, at ceremonies of the first medical degree bestowed on a woman.

In the summer of 1947, she started to feel the symptoms of Myelofibrosis, a rare disease of the bone marrow. For ten years she continued her work, suffering with pain and refusing to stop her laboratory activities. On October 26, 1957, she died of kidney failure.

The famous newscaster, Edward R. Murrow, eulogized her dedication, intellectual integrity, courage and professionalism in her pursuit for answers in biochemistry. In addition, The Cori crater on the Moon is named after her.

Click here to read the stories of more Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement from the USA Science & Engineering Festival.