Bernardo A. Houssay Memorial to Gerty Theresa Cori

Gerty Theresa Cori died on October 26, 1957 from myelofibrosis. A memorial service was held for her two months later at Washington University in St. Louis. Argentinean scientist Bernardo A. Houssay, who had shared the 1947 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Carl and Gerty Cori, was one of several prominent speakers at the service. The following was Houssay’s memorial address.

We are gathered here together, having come from distant countries traveling over land and sea and through the air, in order to render deeply felt homage of respect, admiration and gratitude in the everlasting memory of Gerty Theresa Cori, whose recent death has filled with sorrow all those who work in biochemistry, physiology and medicine throughout the world.

Gerty Cori lived an exemplary life, excelling in achievement. She was a fellow-student of Carl Ferdinand Cori in the University Medical School at Prague, from which they graduated together in 1920, marrying shortly afterwards. Their lives were thenceforth united not only in their love for each other, but also in the constant service of scientific ideals. Their close companionship was to be severed only by the inexorable hand of Death.

The young couple had already done work in Medicine, Pediatrics, Pathology and Pharmacology, when in 1922, they decided to come to this country in search of new and wider opportunities. Their high intelligence, developed by their European education and excellent scientific training, together with a fertile imagination made fruitful by intellectual initiative and industry, found ample scope in this great and generous country to which they became definitely attached by adopting American citizenship in 1928.

They began to work, at Buffalo, on the metabolism of tumors, at the time of the discovery of insulin. This led to the study of carbohydrate metabolism; first the absorption of sugars, then the fate of ingested sugar in the whole animal. The action of those hormones which control carbohydrate metabolism, epinephrin, insulin and, a few years later, pituitary hormones, was the next object of their research.

In 1931 they came here to the Washington University of St. Louis, where Gerty Cori after holding several posts in teaching and research was appointed professor of Biochemistry in 1947.

In St. Louis the Coris, working no longer on the whole animal but on isolated enzyme systems, made a brilliant series of fundamental discoveries. They identified glucose-1-phosphate, now know as Cori’s ester, and phosphoglucomutase, the enzyme which converts glucose-1-phosphate to glucose-6-phosphate. Phosphorylase, which converts glycogen to glucose-1-phosphate was isolated and obtained in crystallized form. Glycogen was synthesized from glucose in vitro by the joint action of hexokinase, phosphoglucomutase and phosphorylase.

These outstanding scientific achievements fully justified the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology awarded to them in 1947, and which I had the honor of sharing for my work on the role of the pituitary in carbohydrate metabolism. Thus Gerty Cori was the third woman to hold a Nobel award, following Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie.

This is not the occasion to discuss the many and important discoveries made by the Coris, such as the mechanism of polymerization of polysaccharides, or the enzyme systems responsible for the synthesis of the straight chain and branching of glycogen. The training in medicine, physiology and pathology gave them the wide background necessary for the correlation of biochemical phenomena with the processes of physiological and pathological integration in the whole organism, thus, enabling Gerty Cori to differentiate four different types of glycogen storage disease.

The Coris have not only carried out personal work of extraordinary originality and significance, they have also inspired and directed one of the most active centers of biochemical research. Their laboratory became the point of attraction of all workers interested in carbohydrate metabolism, and more than sixty first-class scientists have published papers which were the result of the stimulating atmosphere of the St. Louis laboratories. One of my former associates, Luis F. Leloir, worked for several months with them.

Many other well deserved great distinctions were bestowed on Gerty Cori, more than seven renowned awards, membership of the most eminent scientific academies and societies in the United States and in other countries, honorary degrees from the Universities of Boston, Yale, Columbia, Rochester and so on.

Speakers at the memorial service for Gerty Cori, December 15, 1957
Speakers at the Gerty Cori memorial service, held December 15, 1957 at Washington University. Bernardo A. Houssay is at the left.

I met the Coris in St. Louis in December 1935, when they began their work on the pituitary, and I again met Gerty Cori in 1947 during the brilliant ceremonies at Stockholm. Gerty Cori was highly cultured, gentle and modest. For many years she had been suffering from precarious health, but she never flagged in the fulfillment of her duties as a wife, mother and scientist, the triple crown that adorned her life.

Man’s life is not limited to this short, perishable, physical existence, prolonged only in the flesh of his children. Man’s spiritual life has a far wider scope. The works of the spirit can cover the whole world. Moreover their influence is not restricted to a contemporary generation, it persists throughout the ages. Centuries after the artist has left this world, his work awakes admiration and inspires the love of beauty. Creatures born of the genius of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere or Goethe are familiar to millions whose short lives are soon forgotten. We can still rejoice in the ethereal beauty of Raphael’s Madonnas, or be filled with awe by the magnificence of the work of the anonymous builders of the great Gothic Cathedrals. Bach and Beethoven live again when we listen to their music. Discoveries in the field of knowledge exert lasting effects on the lives of men who do not even know the names of those whose patient and sustained efforts gave them that light which has made richer their existence. Aristotle, and Copernicus, Lavoisier, Avogadro, Pasteur and Koch and many, many others who devoted their whole life to the search of truth have been and will surely continue to be present for ever in the spiritual life of humanity.

The advancement of knowledge is a pursuit that knows no frontiers. Scientific work as all authentic intellectual activity unites men in understanding and friendship by means of bonds which are stronger than those of nationality or even kinship. Thus the search for truth in any field becomes an instrument for the building of the brotherhood of men of all races and countries, and for the achievement of that everlasting peace which has always been the greatest need and deepest desire of mankind.

Gerty Cori’s life was a noble example of dedication to an ideal, to the advancement of science for the benefit of humanity. The work of the Coris has permanent value and has already led to fundamental discoveries in the knowledge of cell physiology. Gerty Cori’s charming personality, so rich in human qualities, won the friendship and admiration of all who had the privilege of knowing her. Her name is engraved for ever in the annals of Science and her memory will be cherished by all her many friends as long as we live.

B. A. Houssay
Saint Louis, December 15th, 1957