Monday 23 February 2015


Gerty Cori died in St. Louis Missouri in 1957 a long way from where she was born (Prague).  It took 50 years before she was commemorated with a stamp in her adopted country.  When the USPS, not known for the subtlety of its designs, published a series of stamps acknowledging scientists in April 2008, she was the only woman.  The others were John "Transistor" Bardeen, Edwin "Red Shift" Hubble and Linus "Alpha Helix" Pauling.  Two of these boys won two Nobel Prizes and one won none.  Guess which!  I've had occasion to be critical of Linus Pauling for running waaaay beyond the evidence about vitamin C.  No such complaint was ever levelled at Gerty Cori for the work that led to her Nobel Prize in 1947, of which she shared a half share with her husband; Bernardo Houussay got the other half. There was a bit of a clever-clogs media show in 2008 because a chemist noticed an error in the representation of the molecule that is acting as a sort of speech bubble on the stamp.  That molecule is glucose-1-phosphate, a breakdown product of glycogen, whose identification was one of Cori's contributions to science. The error lies in the fact that the phosphate group on Cori's shoulder appears to be joined to the glucose ring by the wrong oxygen atom! Shock, it took me five minutes of staring at the stamp knowing there was 'an error' to not see what the problem was.  That was partly because my chemistry has been rusting for nearly 40 years, but partly because the 'error' fails to acknowledge that the picture is just a cartoon representation of the molecule - a gross simplification of what it really looks/behaves like. Whatever, printing errors give you pause to think - so that's a good thing.

The stamp story generates a vision of USPS bureaucrats, under some affirmative action protocol, looking to identify and trib a female scientist - possibly crying "find a woman in a white coat . . . any woman so long as she's a scientist . . . any of these broads have a Nobel Prize?" [picture of 'lady scientist' looking intently at a flask of urine] One could wish that, rather than pedestalling Gerty Cori, they had realised that she'd have been happier sharing her stamp, as she had shared her Nobel and as she had shared a lab-bench for 25 years with her husband Carl Cori. Over a life time, they carried out a wide ranging series of experiments setting out some of the fundamentals of biochemical science, especially in the area of carbohydrate metabolism. Glycogen is a polymer made up of numerous glucose molecules that is reasonably inert and so serves as a reservoir of energy for the body, in much the same way that starch serves plants. The Coris sorted out the mechanics of the biochemistry of Glycogen breakdown and made a good fist at revealing the complex of cells and hormones that control the process. The Cori Cycle where lactic acid, produced from anaerobic activity in working muscles, is transported to the liver, rebuilt into glucose and sent back to the muscle for another go-through, is named for them. Our sports science students learn all this at an early stage in their career as gospel truth, and I don't think they are really invited to remember Carl and Gerty Cori and their work.  I don't them being mentioned when I went through college 40 years ago.

Gerty Cori had to tolerate, by-pass, ignore and overcome the most outrageous discrimination to pursue a career in science, starting with school in Prague before WWI where women were groomed to be a doormat or a mattress for a future husband.  She married Carl, whom she had met in graduate school in Europe, and shortly thereafter they escaped to the free world and much better food in Buffalo, NY.  But, like Jocelyn Bell Burnell, it was always following his career opportunities largely because she had, for much of the time, no career opportunities. At least no honoured or honourable opportunities: she worked for some years as her husband's 'lab assistant' at a tenth of his salary; even as she was co-authoring most of his papers and publishing a few on her own.  She only got a properly paying job in Wash U. St. Louis a few months before she was awarded the Nobel Prize. Having experienced hardship and prejudice in post-WWI Europe in the 1920s, they held a sort of open house for brilliant dispossessed scientists in post-WWII St Louis.  It didn't matter whether they were male or female, Jew or gentile, if they could cut the mustard, there was work and funding with the Coris.  Six future Nobel Prize-winners passed through their lab [page 5], including Christian de Duve, Earl Sutherland, Edwin Krebs, Arthur Kornberg.

The same year she won the Nobel, Gerty got a diagnosis of Myelofibrosis, a fatal bone cancer where the cells that make blood cells in the bone-marrow get converted into a mass of connective tissue. She carried on pushing the frontiers of science for as long as she could stand and think straight through the pain, fatigue and anaemia and died at home at the shocking young age of 61.  Six months later, at an even earlier age, Rosalind Franklin pegged out of the science game as well.

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