Gerty Cori - Life and Work

Life and Work

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born into a Jewish family in Prague in 1896. Her father was a chemist who became manager of sugar refineries after inventing a successful method for refining sugar. Her mother, a friend of Franz Kafka, was a culturally sophisticated woman. She was tutored at home before enrolling in a Lyceum for girls, and at the age of 16 she decided she wanted to be a medical doctor. Her uncle, a professor of pediatrics, encouraged her to attend medical school, so she studied for and passed the University entrance examination. She was admitted to the medical school of the German Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague in 1914 and was awarded a Doctorate in Medicine in 1920. While studying she met Carl Cori; he was immediately attracted to her charm, vitality, sense of humor and her love of the outdoors and mountain climbing. They married in 1920 following graduation. They moved to Vienna, Austria, where Gerty spent the next two years at the Carolinen Children's Hospital, and her husband worked in a laboratory. While at the hospital, Gerty Cori worked on the pediatrics unit and conducted experiments in temperature regulation, comparing temperatures before and after thyroid treatment, and published papers on blood disorders. Life was difficult following World War I, and Gerty suffered from xerophthalmia caused by severe malnutrition due to food shortages. These problems, in conjunction with the increasing anti-Semitism, contributed to the Coris' decision to leave Europe.

In 1922, the Coris both immigrated to the United States (Gerty six months after Carl because of difficulty in obtaining a position there) to pursue medical research at the "State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases" (now the Roswell Park Cancer Institute) in Buffalo, New York. In 1928, they became naturalized citizens of the United States.

She was constantly in the laboratory, where we two worked alone. We washed our own laboratory glassware and she would occasionally complain bitterly to Carl about not having any dishwashing help. When she tired, she would retire to her small office adjoining the laboratory, where she would rest on a small cot. She smoked incessantly and dropped cigarette ashes constantly... .

Joseph Larner

Although the Coris were discouraged from working together at Roswell, they continued to do so, specializing in investigating carbohydrate metabolism. They were particularly interested in how glucose is metabolized in the human body and the hormones that regulate this process. They published fifty papers while at Roswell, with first author status going to the one who had done most of the research for a given paper. Gerty Cori published eleven articles as the sole author. In 1929, they proposed the theoretical cycle that later won them the Nobel Prize, the Cori cycle. The cycle describes how human body uses chemical reactions to break carbohydrates such glycogen—a derivative of glucose—in muscle tissue into lactic acid, while synthesizing others.

The Coris left Roswell in 1941 after publishing their work on carbohydrate metabolism. A number of universities offered Carl a position but refused to hire Gerty. Gerty was informed during one university interview that it was considered "unAmerican" for a married couple to work together. They moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1931, where Carl had been offered a research position at Washington University School of Medicine. Despite her research background, Gerty was only offered a position as a research associate at a salary one tenth of that received by her husband; she was warned that she might harm her husband's career. In 1943, she was made an associate professor of Research Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology. Months before she won the Nobel Prize, she was promoted to full professor, a post she held until her death in 1957.

They continued their collaboration at Washington University. Working with minced frog muscle, they discovered an intermediate compound that enabled the breakdown of glycogen, called glucose 1-phosphate, now known as the Cori ester. They established the compound's structure, identified the enzyme phosphorylase that catalyzed its chemical formation, and showed that the Cori ester is the beginning step in the conversion of the carbohydrate glycogen into glucose (large amounts of which are found in the liver). It can also be the last step in the conversion of blood glucose to glycogen, as it is a reversible step.

Gerty and Carl Cori collaborated on most of their work, including that which eventually led to winning the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen". They received one half the prize, the other half going to Argentine physiologist, Bernardo Houssay "for his discovery of the part played by the hormone of the anterior pituitary lobe in the metabolism of sugar". They continued through their work to clarify the mechanisms of carbohydrate metabolism, advancing the understanding of the reversible conversion of sugars and starch, findings which proved crucial in the development of treatments for diabetics.

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