Gerty Cori was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1947, for the discovery of how muscles covert sugar to lactic acid for energy during exercise and how the lactic acid then travels in the bloodstream to the liver where it is converted back to sugar for storage or for use as sugar again. Working in a field that did not welcome women, Cori overcame the barriers of prejudice and discrimination throughout her life. She died at the very young age of 61 of myelofibrosis, in which the bone marrow turns into scar tissue.
Another female Nobel Prize winner, Marie Curie, died in 1934, most likely from the same condition. At that time, doctors diagnosed aplastic anemia which means that her bone marrow stopped making red blood cells. It was almost certainly caused by radioactive materials she used in her laboratory. Curie’s daughter and another Nobel Prize winner, Irene Curie, died in her mid-50s of leukemia which is commonly associated with myelofibrosis. All three of these great women probably died from exposure to the radiation and chemicals used in their pioneering work.
Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born in Prague, in what is now the Czech Republic. Her father was a chemist who invented a new method to refine sugar. Her educated mother had her tutored at home because at that time, most schools for girls taught them only how to be good wives and mothers, not how to get into college. At age 16, Gerty decided that she wanted to go to medical school. For the next two years, she prepared for her entrance exams to medical school by working full time with special tutors to learn the required Latin, mathematics, physics, and chemistry.
In 1914, at age 18, she was admitted to the Karl-Ferdinands-Universität Medical School in Prague. While there, she studied, climbed mountains and skied with a fellow student, Carl Cori. She received her M.D at age 24. That same year, she converted from Judaism to Catholicism so that she and Cori could be married in the Roman Catholic Church.
The young couple moved to Vienna, where she wrote several papers on thyroid disease and blood disorders. However times were very difficult. Poverty was rampant after World War I and food was scarce, causing her to suffer severe eye irritation from vitamin A deficiency. Although she had converted to Catholicism, she was still a victim of antisemitism, so the couple decided to go to America. Carl was able to find a job immediately at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases (now Roswell Park Cancer Institute) in Buffalo, New York, and was allowed to emigrate in 1922. Gerty was not able to get a job there because she was a woman, so she had to wait six months to get a visa to join her husband. In 1928, they both became U.S. citizens.
At Roswell Park, Gerty worked around the clock in a laboratory and often slept on a cot in her small office. In the first eight years there, the Coris published fifty papers together and she published 11 papers as the sole author. In 1929, the Coris showed how muscles use sugar for energy and then release lactic acid into the bloodstream to travel to the liver where it is converted back to sugar again. For this brilliant work, the Coris were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1947. Today, every first year chemistry and medical student is taught about “The Cori Cycle”. Their research explains how the body uses sugar for energy during exercise and is the basis for several treatments of diabetes.
In 1931, her husband had many offers from major universities, but nobody wanted to hire her because she was a woman. The Coris went to St. Louis where Washington University School of Medicine made Carl a professor, and Gerty was offered a job as a research associate at the same salary as a laboratory technician. She kept on publishing and 13 years later, in 1943, she became an associate professor of Research Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology. In 1947 she was appointed to be a full professor, shortly before she was awarded the Nobel Prize. Carl was chairman of a department that eventually produced eight Nobel Prizes. His main job was writing, directing research of students, and administration. Gerty supervised the laboratory.
In 1947, just before winning the Nobel prize, the Coris were on a mountain climbing trip and learned that Gerty Cori had myelofibrosis, a fatal disease of the bone marrow. She worked through incredible bone pain for the next ten years, still continuing to produce major breakthroughs in the laboratory. In 1957, at age 61, she died of this horrible disease. This incredible woman who spent her entire life overcoming prejudice against women by being better than her male peers was survived by her husband and their only child, Tom Cori. Ironically, her son married the daughter of Phyllis Schlafly, a constitutional lawyer known for her opposition to modern feminism and her successful campaign against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
A Short Lesson on the Cori Cycle
The Cori cycle describes how the liver supplies the sugar, glucose, as a source of energy for muscles during exercise. When you exercise so intensely that you cannot get all the oxygen that you need, glucose is converted to lactate that accumulates in muscles and spills over into the bloodstream and is carried to the liver. The liver then converts lactate back into the sugar, glucose. Glucose then circulates in the bloodstream to other tissues, particularly to muscles to supply energy for the exercising muscles.
What is Myelofibrosis?
The bone marrow in the center of your bones has stem cells that make red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. In myelofibrosis, the bone marrow stem cells mutate and lose their ability to make red cells and the patient becomes severely anemic. The stem cells produce large amounts of white blood cells instead and the bone marrow changes into scar tissue. The excessive amount of white blood cells produced by the marrow fill up the liver and spleen to cause permanent damage to both of these organs. Then the person often develops acute myeloid leukemia and dies.
Myelofibrosis is very rare. We do not know what causes it, but risk is increased by
* having a bone-marrow cancer called polycythemia,
* exposure to industrial chemicals such as toluene and benzene,
* radiation, and
* perhaps other causes of cancers such as smoking.
Gerty Cori was a heavy chain smoker and worked with many industrial solvents and radiation in her laboratory.
Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori
August 15, 1896 – October 26, 1957