The misadventures of the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Medicine: Gerty Cori – Science and Health

Her maiden name was Gerty Theresa Radnitz, but since she received the Nobel Prize with her husband, she was named Gerty Cori for the history of science.
She and her husband Carl changed the conception of biology by introducing the study of molecular chemistry as closely related to cell function.
Gerty had been born into a Jewish family in Prague, almost contemporary with Franz Kafka. Prague was then a cosmopolitan, real and fantastic city, dark and diaphanous, free and, in turn, a prison… Kafka said that “Prague never lets you go… it has sharp claws that don’t let go”.
Like the writer, Gerty and her friends frequented cafes where they met to chat, discuss, philosophize or just pass the time. “The Golden Unicorn”, “The Louvre” or “The Savoy” were frequented by characters such as Albert Einstein, the Czech playwright Karel Capek, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke or the politician Václau Havel.
Nobody noticed this shy young woman then, but it turns out that under the influence of her uncle, a well-known pediatrician in the city, she had decided to study medicine.
The entrance exam for the University of Vienna was especially difficult for women because the girls’ high schools did not teach Latin, mathematics, or physics, subjects that Cori had to learn on her own. She spent a year preparing for what she called “the most demanding exam of her career,” but she passed it, and in 1914, at the age of 18, she entered the Faculty of Medicine.
There she found the two loves that would accompany her throughout her life: the biochemist and Carl Cori who would be her husband, fellow student, laboratory assistant, and researcher. She met him in the anatomy amphitheater, among the dead that the doctors called “prepared” and a hurtful smell of formaldehyde. It wasn’t exactly a very romantic place, but a bond was born there that made them inseparable. They not only shared the study but long walks through the neighboring mountains and skiing in winter.
They got married when they received. He was 22 and she was 24 years old.
The 1920s were troubled in a Europe recovering from the war. To the rhythm of the Charleston and the tango, a new conflict marked by racism was generated.
Although Gerty had converted to Catholicism to marry Carl, her Jewish ancestry still weighed heavily on her.
In 1922 they left Czechoslovakia for the safety of the United States where Carl had gotten a job at the State Institute in Buffalo, NYC, to study malignant diseases. Carl got his wife a position as an assistant pathologist. Her fees were only 10% of what her husband earned.
After three years of working in different fields, they began to investigate together the metabolism of carbohydrates, the source of energy for cells, which was then unknown. In 1936 they discovered glucose-1-phosphate, a sugar derivative that accumulates in the muscles. The couple was able to demonstrate that the glycogen accumulated in the muscle was broken down into lactic acid and this, when transported to the liver by the bloodstream, was converted, once again, into glucose that returned to the muscle and thus restarted a cycle that went on to called like marriage: the cycle of Cori.
This discovery launched the couple to stardom, especially Gerty who became a researcher at Saint Louise University and two years later, in 1940, an associate professor. When in 1947 the Swedish Academy awarded them the Nobel Prize for her research on glucose metabolism, it was only then that the university recognized her as full professor, even though she had more than 60 published works to her credit. The recognition of her came, although unfortunately late, because that year she was diagnosed with myeloblastoma (a disease of the bone marrow) that led to her death from liver failure in 1957.
It is worth noting that in that same year, the Nobel was also awarded to Bernardo Houssay, the second Argentine to receive this award and the first doctor to deserve it, since the metabolism of sugar and its relationship with insulin was the object of his studies. .
The Coris were not the first couple to receive a Nobel, Pierre and Marie Curie preceded them in that honor.
Although the work on carbohydrate metabolism was joint, the recognition of the spouses was not even. Gerty was elected to the Academy of Science just eight years after her husband. Carl was the only Albert Lasker Award nominee, as well as the Willard Gibbs Medal, who did not recognize his wife.
Instead, Gerty received the Garvan-Olin Medal in 1948, awarded to women for work in biochemistry.
After Gerty’s death, Carl married Anne Fitzgerald Jones and continued the studies he had begun with his wife at Harvard University until the 1980s, when he could no longer attend due to health problems.
Gerty Cori fought against adversity, racism and discrimination, coped with differences with height and thanks to her example and perseverance is that today women enjoy equality that, although it is not ideal, is becoming fairer every day.
Gerty Cori left us her studies, her example, her self-sacrifice and a phrase that helps to understand the advancement of science as the “lifting of the veil over the secrets of nature when after the darkness and chaos the clear and beautiful light appears of a pattern that will serve as a model for us”. That is the task of the scientist, to push the limits of ignorance.

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