The Woman Who Pioneered Diabetes Research

March 22, 2024

We all do things for our parents. Some of us make them a card for their birthday, call them to say hello, or discover key mechanisms behind how the body metabolizes sugar in an attempt to save them from diabetes. Falling into that last category is the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize, Dr. Gerty Cori. She was born to a Jewish family in Prague in 1896. She became a doctor, got married, and worked in research at Carolinen Children’s Hospital. Gerty and her husband, Carl, collaborated and published multiple papers. Central Europe became challenging for Jewish people during the interwar period. She immigrated to the USA with her husband in the 1920s and naturalized in 1928. Her father was diagnosed with diabetes, and it’s said that’s where she got her inspiration.

America in the first part of the 20th century was a tough place to be a female researcher. Gerty Cori’s husband was offered prestigious positions that were denied to Gerty based on her gender. Carl Cori would not stop collaborating with his wife and refused positions where Gerty was not welcome. They eventually were hired at Washington University in St. Louis, though Gerty was given a token salary 1/10th of what Carl made. There, Gerty and Carl collaborated and investigated how sugar was broken down and stored in the body. It was said that Gerty had the ideas, and together the husband and wife team made breakthroughs. This culminated in their description of how the body delivers energy to muscles during intense exercise in what came to be called the Cori Cycle.

The Cori Cycle is essential to our understanding of how the liver and muscles work together. Our muscles need energy to do anything and everything. Normally, sugar in the form of glucose is broken down using oxygen, releasing energy. During prolonged and/or intense exercise, we can’t get enough oxygen to the muscles fast enough, and they have to produce energy without oxygen. To do this they convert glucose to pyruvate to lactate. Lactate is released into the blood, where it could cause damage if not for the liver. Gerty Cori and her husband’s experiments found that the liver regenerates glucose from the extra lactate. The liver uses more energy to make the glucose than the muscles can generate from it without oxygen, so the Cori Cycle is the shifting of the energy production from the muscles to the liver.

Because of this and other critical work illuminating how the body metabolizes glucose, Gerty and her husband shared the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, making Gerty the first American woman to win the prize. Earlier that year, Gerty was also finally offered a full professorship at Washington University. She continued her work on glucose metabolism and spent time investigating enzymes and hormones. Her work would later be critical to our understanding of how glucose is regulated through the body, giving targets for diabetes medications. 

This Women’s History Month, as we honor the remarkable women who have impacted our world, let’s recognize the pioneering spirit of the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Her groundbreaking work laid the foundation for our understanding and treatment of diabetes.

We can draw on her inspiration to make our parents proud and continue the legacy of progress and compassion.

Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA

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National Center for Biotechnology Information (2024). PubChem Pathway Summary for Pathway WP1946, Cori cycle, Source: WikiPathways. Retrieved March 19, 2024 from

Washington University School of Medicine. (2004). Gerty Theresa Cori. Bernard Becker Medical Library.

Ginsberg, J. (2010). Carl and Gerty Cori and Carbohydrate Metabolism. National Historic Chemical Landmark.

Gerty Cori – Biographical. (1964). Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1942-1962. Elsevier Publishing Company.

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