A fight for gender equality that ended with a Nobel

    Biochemist Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori (1896-1957) and her husband Carl Ferdinand Cori (1896-1984) were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1947. (Smithsonian Institution)

    Biochemist Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori (1896-1957) and her husband Carl Ferdinand Cori (1896-1984) were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1947. (Smithsonian Institution)

    Since 1901, only 49 women have received a Nobel Prize. This is the story of Gerty Cori, who fought to be recognized as an equal to her husband.

    Since 1901, only 49 women have received a Nobel Prize.

    Most people know the first was Marie Curie, who shared the 1903 physics award for research on radioactivity she conducted alongside her husband Pierre. Marie’s daughter, Irène, carried on the family tradition, sharing the chemistry Nobel with her husband Frédéric Joliot in 1935. Nobel Prizes for female scientists remained confined to the Curies until October 23, 1947, when Gerty Cori received a telegram from Stockholm.

    At the time Cori shared a laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis with her husband, Carl. The two had met while attending medical school in Prague. Gerty, the daughter of a Jewish businessman, was an ambitious extrovert whose enthusiasm for science, as well as a shared love of the outdoors, won over the more reserved Carl. Though their professional and personal relationship suffered somewhat when Carl was conscripted into the Austrian army, they published their first immunology paper in 1920 and married later that year.

    Life for the newlyweds was difficult in the aftermath of World War I, but they were both able to find jobs in Vienna. Gerty did clinical work in a children’s hospital, and Carl worked as a research assistant in several university laboratories. The rise of antisemitism in Austria spurred the couple to immigrate to the United States. They settled in Buffalo and eventually began a fruitful partnership exploring how hormones like epinephrine and insulin affected the regulation of blood glucose levels.

    Their partnership did not always proceed smoothly. Their supervisor initially prohibited Gerty from working with Carl, forcing them to collaborate in secret. Even after the ban was removed, the laboratory refused to recognize Gerty’s achievements. She remained unmentioned on the lab’s official stationery, for example, even after serving as sole author of several publications. Ultimately, the Coris chose to leave Buffalo. Several schools expressed interest in hiring Carl, but only Washington University recognized that the couple worked best together. The two moved west in 1931. As a professor, Carl officially outranked his wife (a mere research associate), but in practice, the two worked as equals.

    The research that eventually made the Coris famous involved glycogen, the molecule that muscles use to store glucose. Together they were able to determine the exact chemical processes through which the body breaks glycogen down into simple sugars and how those sugars are metabolized. They were also able to reverse this reaction to synthesize glycogen in a test tube. Despite these accomplishments, Gerty was unable to obtain a faculty position at Washington University until 1943. She was finally promoted to professor in 1947, the same year she and her husband were honored, alongside Argentine researcher Bernardo Houssay, with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. At long last they would be treated as equals, just as they had always seen each other in the laboratory.

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