Gerty Cori Theresa Radnitz was born in Prague in 1896. The environment that gives her birth is refined and intellectually stimulating: the mother is a woman who belongs to the Czech upper middle class, linked to Kafka by an intense friendship; his father is a chemist who developed an innovative technology for the time that allows sugar to be refined and runs several refineries in the city.
Gerty Cori: from the meeting with the future husband to the first important discoveries
Gerty is encouraged to study, even though times are particularly tight on women’s empowerment. At the age of 16, she was pushed by an uncle and enrolled in medical schooldespite having serious gaps in core subjects including Latin, mathematics, chemistry and physics. This does not discourage Gerty, who rolls up his sleeves and as a self-taught person recovers in a few months the equivalent of eight years of Latin studies and five of science and mathematics.
Finally at 18, he enters the University of Prague where it will meet Carl Ferdinand Cori, who will become her future husband. Gerry she graduated in 1920 and soon after married Cori who would not only become her husband, but her greatest collaborator in research. To make matters worse, the same year they publish their first study.
Although Cari was recruited in previous years for the Great War and experience has proved it, this is not enough to stop it.
The only train is there fear that his wife will be overwhelmed by anti-Semitism that begins to hover in the atmospheres of time. Gerty Cori will find herself having to face both the discrimination that affects her both as a woman and as a Jew. Perhaps this is the reason that pushes them to move to the United States in 1922 where they will obtain citizenship in 1928.
The Dear spouses start a collaboration with the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases of Buffalo, in the state of New York, and the first problems begin to arise: the director in fact asks Gerty to interrupt the collaboration with her husband, as it is considered inconvenient.
The allegations are surreal: Gerky would have a negative influence on her husband’s career, and she is accused of not respecting American values. In the society of the period the wife had to stay a step behind her husband, if there were two, even better.
The Cori spouses ignore these intimidations and continue to work together, publishing 50 articles over the next 5 years. The scientist spouses are focused on studying the carbohydrate metabolism, with particular attention to the dynamics that regulate theabsorption of glucose in the human body and on the role of hormones such asinsulin and theadrenaline. The studies are becoming more and more intense and in-depth: we move from the human body to the observation of isolated tissues and enzymes.
They are studies that will keep them busy for years and thanks to which they will get the Nobel. Gerty and Carl Cori discover that insulin increases the oxidation of glucose and its conversion into glycogen in the muscles and liver, while on the contrary adrenaline reduces muscle and liver glycogen. Finally, they show that glycogen is broken down in muscle tissue in the form of lactic acid and then resynthesized in the body and stored as an energy source. This discovery is now known by the name Cori cycle.
The Cori spouses move to Washington University in Saint Louis in 1931 and with equal skills, Carl will be entrusted with the role of director of the biochemistry department, while Gerty will be inflicted yet another discrimination: she will be appointed research assistant, with a salary of 10 times less than that of her husband.
Despite yet another prejudice against her as a woman, Gerty Cori does not throw in the towel but continues to study and in 1936, the scientist spouses give the world an “other important discovery concerning the metabolism of carbohydrates: they isolate glucose-1- phosphate, an intermediate compound that makes it possible to break down glycogen (later known as Cori ester), therefore identify the enzyme phosphorylase and demonstrate that glucose-1-phosphate represents the initial step in the process of converting glycogen into glucose.
Gerty Cori: the Nobel Prize for Medicine arrives
In 1947 they received the Nobel Prize for medicine, and Gerty Cori, becomes the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for identifying the metabolic process responsible for converting lactic acid into glucose: his passion for research was stronger than any prejudice, any discrimination, any dull mentality encountered along his path.
Although the collaboration with her husband was so intense as to make it impossible to understand the real contributions of both, because this is what happens in collaborations based on a strong synergy, Gerty has suffered for more than 40 years the pressing prejudice that as a woman she was inferior, living so beautiful behind the lines of the academic world, despite the fact that it deserved the lights and the stage.
The Nobel victory demonstrated the blatant hypocrisy of that time that she couldn’t help but acknowledge her being a great scientist with the Nobel Prize, but who despite this, continued to harass her because she was a woman.
The day of the Nobel, her husband Carl Cori declared: “Our efforts have been largely complementary, one without the other would never have gone as far as working together. […] The fact that the prize was also awarded to my wife is a source of profound satisfaction for me ”.
Gerty will find that she has been hit by myelofibrosis, a rare pathology that affects the bone marrow, and despite this, he does not spare himself and continues his studies. He will die ten years after the Nobel, in 1957, having fought the disease with the same energy with which it fought a hostile academic world and which never recognized its merits.