Every 10th of December, ceremonies in Oslo and Stockholm honor that year’s Nobel Prize winners. Currently, Washington University in St. Louis boasts connections to 23 Nobel laureates. Among them is Gerty Cori, who researched and taught at the University from 1931 to 1957. In 1947, she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in science. She and her husband Carl, also a faculty member at WU, received the prestigious award for their work on carbohydrate metabolism.
Cori was born Gerty Theresa Radnitz in Prague in 1896. While in medical school at the German University of Prague, she met Carl Cori, and the couple emigrated to the United States in 1922. They came to Washington University in 1931 when Carl was offered the position of Chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine. University rules at the time did not allow a husband and wife to receive concurrent faculty appointments, but Gerty Cori worked as a research fellow in Pharmacology. She was made associate professor of Research Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology in 1943 and promoted to professor a few months before winning the Nobel Prize.
Explore more >> view the Nobel diploma and medals received by Gerty and Carl Cory, archived at the Becker Medical School
While working at Washington University, the Coris continued the work on metabolism that had led them to describe the “Cori cycle” in 1929. They discovered glucose-1-phosphate, also known as “Cori ester,” an intermediate compound in the breakdown of glycogen into glucose. They also determined its catalyst, an enzyme they named phosphorylase. This work, as well as other foundational research on carbohydrate metabolism, led to their winning the Nobel Prize in 1947.
Gerty Cori remained in St. Louis for the rest of her life. She suffered from myelosclerosis for ten years before she passed away in 1957. Nonetheless, she continued to research and teach until only a few months before her death.
All images: Gerty Cori, and her husband Carl Cori, working in their lab at Washington University, circa 1947
For further reading:
Gerty Cori’s essay, “This I Believe: Glories of the Human Mind”