From Refugee to Nobel Laureate

Driven To Find Answers, Dr. Gerty Cori Broke the Rules
Sunday, March 12, 2017 - 9:00am

In 1921, three years after Austria’s defeat in World War One, the country was still struggling to recover, and its people were on the brink of starvation.

The future looked bleak for Austrian scientists: research laboratories had no money to purchase supplies or pay salaries. In Vienna, 25-year-old Gerty Radnitz Cori, MD, became malnourished and developed a severe vitamin deficiency while working at a hospital. Her husband, Carl Cori, MD, also 25, worked as a medical researcher in exchange for one meal per day.

Meanwhile, in Buffalo, New York, Harvey Gaylord, MD, was making plans to scoop up some of the best and brightest of Europe’s displaced scientists. Director of the New York State Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease (today’s Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center), Gaylord learned about the Coris during a recruiting trip to Austria. The couple eagerly accepted his offer of employment. Carl became a biochemist at the Institute, and Gerty an assistant pathologist.

Partners in Discovery

Before the war, the Coris had worked together to investigate how the body processes sugar. In Buffalo they continued that research in Carl’s lab when their regular duties were finished for the day — until Gerty was warned that she would lose her job if she didn’t abandon the research and stay in her own area. For a while, she disobeyed the order and conducted her research on the sly, concentrating on projects that required only a microscope — equipment she already had in Pathology — so no one was the wiser.

But a year later, “their colleagues came to understand and respect the Coris’ wish to work together,” and there were no more objections to their collaboration. By 1928, Gerty was working in Carl’s area as assistant biological chemist. During their nine years at the Institute, the Coris produced a total of 80 publications, laying the foundation for their future groundbreaking work.

A New Direction

But the couple felt pulled in a different direction, because the Institute focused exclusively on cancer. Their main interest was carbohydrate metabolism — how cells turn food into energy — so they decided to look for positions elsewhere.

In 1931, Carl accepted a post as Chair of Pharmacology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, where Gerty was offered a research post. Although the Coris were equal partners in the lab, Gerty’s starting salary was one-tenth of her husband’s.

First American Woman to Win a Nobel Prize in Science

During their years in St. Louis, the Coris completed the work for which they later won the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, “for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen.” This work, explained historian Judah Ginsberg, PhD, “proved particularly useful in the development of treatments for diabetes.”

Gerty Cori was the first woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the third woman worldwide and first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in science. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and appointed to the National Science Foundation by President Harry S. Truman. In 2008, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor (although the chemical formula for the “Cori ester” depicted on the stamp contained an error in a misplaced bond).

Reflecting on her lifelong dedication to science, Gerty Cori said in a 1950s radio broadcast that “the unforgotten moments of my life are those rare ones…when the veil over nature’s secret seems suddenly to lift, and when what was dark and chaotic appears in a clear and beautiful light and pattern.”

Listen to the full broadcast as Dr. Gerty Cori talks about her deepest convictions in a recording from the CBS Radio Network series This I Believe.

Watch a video about the Coris and their contributions to science.