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May 8 2014

The Jewish Nobel Prize Winner With a Crater Named After Her

By at 9:54 am

gerty-biochemist

How many women do you know who have a crater named after them? Now, at least one: Gerty Theresa Cori. And planetary study wasn’t even what made her a scientific star.

In 1947, Cori became the first American woman–the third woman ever–to win the Nobel Prize. She and her husband Carl received it together in recognition for their life’s work on carbohydrate metabolism, specifically for “their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen,” which expanded understanding of how muscles make and store energy and the role of enzymes, with implications for the treatment of diabetes, among other diseases.

What’s particularly amazing is that she did all this while marginalized, for most of her career, in junior research positions at a small fraction of her husband’s salary. Gerty and Carl worked so closely together that he turned down prestigious positions at universities which would not support their collaborations; even so, she only rose to full professorship shortly before receiving the Nobel Prize. 

Biochemist Mildred Cohn, who worked with Gerty and broke plenty of barriers herself, tells Gerty’s story: Born in 1896 to a sophisticated Jewish family in Prague, Gerty developed a love of science at a young age. Her maternal uncle encouraged her to attend medical school, so she undertook extra studies to make up for the deficiencies of her finishing-school education. She and Carl met at medical school, where they found they shared many interests and a love of the outdoors; there they also published their first joint research paper on immune bodies in disease.

They emigrated to the United States in 1928 and went to Washington University in St. Louis to build their careers while raising their one son. So many brilliant scientists were attracted to their lab that six of those Gerty and Carl mentored eventually became Nobel laureates themselves. Gerty told the radio program This I Believe, ”The love for and dedication to one’s work seem to me to be the basis for happiness.” It’s a lofty vision, and in her honor both the moon and Venus have Cori Craters named after her.

Read more about Gerty Cori in her entry by Mildred Cohn in “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” from which this introduction is adapted, and discover hundreds of inspiring stories—including Mildred’s own—in the Jewish Women’s Archive: jwa.org.

Jewish Women's Archive

As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish American Heritage Month, Kveller and the Jewish Women’s Archive bring to light little-known stories of inspiring, intriguing Jewish American women whose legacies still change our lives today. To explore even more, visit jwa.org.

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