Washington University School of Medicine Oral History Project Washington University School of Medicine Bernard Becker Medical Library
Home | Browse the Interviews | Index of Names | Rights & Permissions | About this Project

Transcript: Carl F. Cori, 1982

Please note: The Becker Medical Library presents this oral history interview as part of the record of the past. This primary historical resource may reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times and of the interviewee. The Becker Medical Library does not endorse the views expressed in this interview, which may contain materials offensive to some users.

Listen to Interview

Option 1

Download and open the audio file using your browser’s default media player. Audio interviews are presented in the MP3 audio format and may be accessed using QuickTime, Windows Media Player, or RealPlayer. Some audio files are very large and may take several minutes to load.

Download Interview (84 MB)

Option 2

Use the MP3 Flash Player below to listen to the interview. If you do not see the player, you do not have the Flash Player installed. Click here to install.

Click on the right arrow to start. (If you are using Internet Explorer you may have to click on the arrow twice to start the player.)

This is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Carl F. Cori, recorded on October 18, 1982, in Dr. Cori’s laboratory at the Department of Biological Chemistry of the Harvard University Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.  References are made during the course of the interview to an autobiographical article which Dr. Cori published in the Annual Review of Biochemistry, v. 38, 1969, pp. 1-20.

Dr. Cori, you were born in Prague, to what I presume was a family of German heritage.  Is that not the case?


How long had your family lived in Bohemia?

Well, my father’s family lived there a long time, and my mother’s family as well.

Did they consider themselves Austrian, or German?

They considered themselves Austrian because at that time Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Most of your years growing up were spent in Trieste, though.

When I was two and one half years old, my father moved to Trieste because he became the director of the Marine Biological Station.  I grew up in Trieste and went to school there until I went to Prague to study medicine.

Were there many German-speaking gymnasiums in Trieste?

There was one German-speaking and one Italian-speaking [gymnasium].

About how large a city was it then?

Oh, it was about – I’m not quite sure – a city of 200,000 inhabitants.

And most of the people were Italian?

And Yugoslavs.  In the gymnasium there were Germans, Italians and Yugoslavs.

All educated in German?

Yes, in German.

Did the Austrians try to make it a German-speaking city?

No, no, that was not part of their aim to do that.  It was a very rich city at that time because it was the outlet of a large hinterland.  There was a lot of shipping.  Most of the emigration to America from this area went through Trieste.

In 1914 you entered the Carl Ferdinand University in Prague to study medicine.

Yes, I am named after that university.

Why were you named after the university?

Because many of my ancestors were connected with this university.  My father, of course, studied medicine there and zoology.  He had an M.D.-Ph.D. degree.  And my maternal grandfather was professor of theoretical physics at the university.

Was it for family reasons that you went to Prague, or were there other reasons?

No, since my father established his career in Prague and then had this appointment in Trieste, it was natural that the family would be in Prague.

What about the city Prague?  Once again, we have a multinational city.  What was the percentage of German, and what was the percentage of Czech at that time?

Well, I don’t know.  But I returned to Prague to study medicine, and then I had a better understanding of the city than when I left it at two and a half years of age.  It is a beautiful city really, and interesting.  I learned a little Czech, but not enough to communicate easily.  There was a fair German population, but the majority of the people were Czech.

I see.  Did the Czechs have their own university?

Yes.  There were two branches to this university, one German and one Czech.  Complete universities, I mean, all the faculties in both German and Czech.

Was the Czech university new?

No, this was an old university.  Prague has one of the oldest universities in Europe.

It was, in fact, the oldest German university, was it not?

Well, these things can be debated but are not particularly interesting.

You succeeded in completing three years of medical study before you were drafted into the army.


Was there a policy of exempting medical students?

Well, I started to study medicine when I was seventeen.  I was not of age at that time.

Later on, of course, they were drafting seventeen-year olds.

Yes, but not at that time.  I, in fact, during basic training in the army, still managed to hear a few courses in the medical school.

As you know, many German and Austrian universities accepted American students before the war.  And this, historians attribute, was one of the reasons why American medicine developed the way it did.

Well, that was mostly in Vienna.  There was a large influx of Americans to the University of Vienna, which at that time had prominent people on its medical faculty and gave courses for foreigners.  The faculty there in clinical medicine and pathology were particularly good.

There weren’t many American students, then, at Prague?

There were some, but not as many as in Vienna.

When they came, perhaps, they took the entire medical curriculum and not the short clinical courses?

Well, of course, I started in 1914 to study medicine.  Nobody came at that time because of political conditions.  Just speaking about what I know, at that time there were no Americans in Prague.

It was in Prague that you met Gerty Cori, is that right?


And she was a native of Prague like yourself; she was the daughter of a businessman named Otto Radnitz?

Yes, he was the director of sugar factories.  You know, there was a large sugar industry – beet sugar [in Bohemia].  We exported a lot of refined sugar.  He was the director of several such factories.

She attended a gymnasium in a town called Tetschen?

She did not attend the gymnasium.  She took the examinations and studied privately.  When she decided to study medicine, she did not have the proper education to enter medical school.  In order to do so she had to pass the examination of the gymnasium and she did that in Tetschen.

Where was Tetschen with regard to Prague?

It was in the north of Bohemia.  [Note: Tetschen is now known as Decin.]

Was it unusual for women to matriculate in medicine in Prague in 1914?

There were other women in medical school, but not too many.  It was still unusual for women to study medicine.

How long had they been permitted to study medicine?

I cannot tell you when, but the university in general was always open to women.  If they qualified they could enter into the university.  The qualification was an examination at the end of the gymnasium, with a very comprehensive oral examination.  If you passed that, you could enter the university.

You were drafted in the army in 1917.  Is that right?

Well, it was certainly after 1914.  Perhaps 1917 is right.

This was before you had finished your medical degree.  Why was your study broken off then?  Did they need soldiers then so badly?

Well, they employed me as a medic and the first military assignment I had was with soldiers in the ski troops as a medic.

Where did they send you with the ski troops?

They sent me to the mountains, the mountainous region in the northeast bordering on the German province of Silesia.

The Riesengebirge?

The Riesengebirge is right, yes.  I knew how to ski, of course, and so it was a rather nice assignment.

But there was an accident that caused an end to this, was there not?

No, one night we had some vacation and I skied down to the valley with some of the other boys.  They didn’t like the activity so I left them and walked back alone during the night, but I took a rather difficult route.  The Riesengebirge were foggy and I lost my way and only returned to the quarters around four a.m.  By that time they were worried about where I was.

You were assigned later on to a bacteriological laboratory.


And there, as I understand, you contracted typhoid fever.

Well (laughs), I suppose my technique was not that good.  I wasn’t sufficiently careful, you know.  It looked like a laboratory infection but it may not have been, there was a lot of typhoid fever around and it turned out that the vaccination they gave us was really not effective.

But you say that possibly [it was this incident] that led you to start thinking about biochemical problems.

Of course I learned bacteriological techniques, how to isolate pathogenic organisms and then to identify them and something of serology.  Of course I took books along and studied medicine all the time.

Where was this laboratory?

In a city called Laibach, now called Ljubljana.

In Slovenia.

There was an infectious [diseases] hospital there connected with the laboratory.

And for a while you also compiled statistics on infectious diseases, did you not?

No, that was later, after I had been sent to the front, which was close to the Piave River.  [In Laibach] I was in the hospital for infectious diseases that was staffed by Hungarians and there I could do some clinical work.  [At the front] I had the job of gathering statistics and writing a weekly report about health conditions.

You worked for a time at your father’s laboratory in Trieste.

It so happened that I was sent there, yes.  I was sent to check on the laboratory in Trieste and I did a little bacteriological work involving meat [intended for the armed forces], in particular, whether it was palatable or infected.  But this lasted only a short time.

You had a problem with a comrade who reported you?

That was in Trieste, yes.

And then you were sent to the front line?


And you were saved because you were in an automobile accident.  Was that a very serious injury?  You talked about having an artery cut.

Glass cut the temporal artery.

Where would you have been sent, had you arrived – to the east front?

No, I was sent to the Italian front.

At the end of the war, as you have already told me, you were on the Piave River and you worked with Hungarians.  Do you speak any Hungarian?

Well, I learned a few words of Hungarian.  I want to [describe] one thing that was interesting to me in connection with the hospital for infectious diseases.  I was assigned a survey of the civilian population because I spoke Italian (I learned it in Trieste) and I was supposed to find out what infectious diseases there were among the civilian population.  I did that by starting out in the morning with a horse and buggy and a black satchel.  When I came to a crossroads, a farmer would flag me down and would take me to a house where there were sick people.  That was an interesting experience.  These poor farmers had very little to eat, but when you came into a house, they would offer you a glass of wine.  If you had refused, it would have been very offensive.  Then, when they uncovered the patient, there would be hundreds of fleas jumping about.

Do you think that was the way life was all the time?

Fleas transmit typhoid fever.  I handled fleas, but this was very disagreeable to me.  Since I had had typhoid fever by that time, I was fully immune.  But it was an interesting experience to contact the civilian population.

Do you think that is the way they lived at all times or was it just because of wartime austerity?

No, no, the Germans had been through there and they had taken really anything that was above ground.  [The Italians] had buried food underground and wine, but, as tenant farmers, they were poor under any circumstances.  This is, incidentally, the region where an earthquake occurred a few years ago, called the Friuli earthquake.

What did Gerty Radnitz do during the war?

She served in the [military] clinic.  After all, many of the soldiers came back to Prague wounded or with diseases that required [medical care].  She also served in the refugee clinic [serving] people from the east who had to flee because of war conditions.

The war ended in 1918.  What was Prague like when you returned there?  What was defeat like?

It did not seem to penetrate very deeply.  Prague was better off [than elsewhere] because the people had enough to eat.  I then went to Vienna and saw the after-effects much more in the sense that there was very little to eat and that the Hoover relief program was required for hospitals, to feed the patients and so on.  But in Prague, everybody was happy that the war was over and there was not such a feeling of defeat.  Of course, the Czechs had established their own republic, [independent of Austria] and so they were very happy.

Wasn’t there a terrific influenza epidemic across Europe at this time?

Yes, I lived through it and it was one of the reasons that I never wanted to practice medicine, because as a doctor you were completely helpless.  Poor soldiers came [back from combat] and were dead in twenty-four, some in forty-eight hours – dying of pneumonia and we couldn’t do anything.  I thought that one knew so little, that one should go to the laboratory to find out what was going on.  This was certainly an influence [on my career] that was very strong.

Was empyema also a problem?

Well, that comes on later, of course.  If you survived [pneumonia], it was very likely you would get empyema.

You allude in your article “The Call to Science” to a summer in which you worked in Bratislava at the pharmacological institute.  This was after the war?


Would that have been 1919 then, the year immediately after the war that you were there?

That was about 1920.

You said that there was a university that had been founded there and that it was Hungarian.

The university was entirely new and had been built in peacetime with the idea that it would be a Hungarian university.  Bratislava is the Czech name [of the city].  Pressburg is the German name and Pozsony the Hungarian name.  [Up to] that time it [had been] part of Hungary.

There was primarily a Slovak population in the city.  It became the capital of Slovakia, didn’t it?


You participated in the transport of this pharmacological institute across the lines—

Across the Danube [River].

Where in Hungary did it wind up?

The professor of pharmacology in Pressburg was transferred to Hungary, so he took the equipment and put it across the Danube [to the Hungarian side of the river], so he could continue when he set up there.

Was this Dr. [Geza] Mansfeld?

Yes, Mansfeld.

In 1920, I understand you went to Vienna for post-doctoral work and there you divided your time between internal medicine and pharmacology.  Was your work in medicine at the Allgemeines Krankenhaus?  Could you describe that institution as it was?

The clinic was [made of] wards and private rooms.

It was the largest hospital in Vienna?

Yes.  There were several university clinics.  The director of the [internal medicine] clinic was a man called [Hans] Eppinger.

And he was your preceptor?

Yes, he was my preceptor and he was the man who did clinical medicine and also laboratory work.  And so if you entered his clinic, you were expected to do some research and some laboratory work.  So I worked there.

Why did you do work in pharmacology at this time?

Well, for the reason that I mentioned, that I was not sure whether I wanted to stay in clinical medicine.  I had begun to do pharmacology in Pressburg in summer which we talked about earlier.

In pharmacology, you worked under a Dr. [H. H.] Meyer?

He was then [officially] retired but he was [still active as a] consultant.  Meyer was a famous pharmacologist because he had developed the theory of anesthesia.  His basic idea was that anesthetic agents are soluble in lipids, more so in lipids than in water.  The brain takes up more anesthetic in lipid form.  [Meyer] retired at that time and his successor was a man named Pick, E. P. Pick.

You described yourself as one of the few who had the capability of doing research.

At the Pharmacological Institute, yes.  The reason I could work was that my father had returned to Prague.  Trieste was no longer available, the Marine Biological Station closed, so he returned to his alma mater, where he became professor of zoology.  He was able to send me some frogs, because in Bohemia there were many ponds where you can get frogs.  I had sixty frogs and I had to put them under lock and key because people would have eaten them, since there was no food available.  This enabled me to do some work.  I was probably the only one who worked.  It was a very poor period [in Austria].

What kind of experiments could you run with frogs?

Well, I did some experiments on the frog heart.  I was interested in continuing some work I had begun in Bratislava-Pressburg-Pozsony, namely the effect of nerve stimulation of the heart.

It’s curious that this was what your later colleague, Dr. [Joseph] Erlanger, was working on in the United States at about the same time.

Erlanger was a neurophysiologist who worked on nerves and their electrical activity.

Well, before that he had worked on such matters as heart block.

Correct, he had worked on human hearts.

Outside of the fact that you had frogs, what was a laboratory in pharmacology like at that time?

Well, there were some simple instruments with which you could record the contraction of the heart.  One uses the frog heart because it survives very well.  A mammalian heart requires a more elaborate setup, although it can also be made to beat for hours when separated from the body with special equipment.  The frog heart is simple and yet reflects heart activity of higher animals.  You can study dogs from the frog heart.  It was part of the activity of the Pharmacological Institute at that time to work with frog hearts.

Was it unusual for a pharmacologist to be doing that kind of research?


In August of 1920 you married Gerty Radnitz.  You mentioned in your article that thereafter she returned to Prague (this was in Vienna that you were married), but you make no mention that you yourself went to Prague.  Were you separated for a time after that for professional reasons?

No.  In Vienna she worked at the Children’s Hospital and I had the two jobs that I mentioned.  But she got an eye disease, which is now recognized as a deficiency in vitamin A.  It was treated as a tuberculosis, but of course wasn’t.  When nothing seemed to work, she went home.  And as soon as she got on a better diet, the disease was cured.

So it was just for recuperation that she went home?

Yes, then after that I went to Graz and that’s when we were living for a while separately.  It was a question of getting lodging and also a job to provide food.  [At the University of Graz] I worked with professor Otto Loewi, who was well known for his work on the transmission of nerve impulses to the heart.  His work provided the first indications that nerve impulses liberate chemicals, such as acetylcholine, which, when added directly to the nerve, often stops the heart.  That was the work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Did you assist him in any of this research?

By the time I got there the basic work had been done.  I suggested looking at other things in the heart where the same principle could be obtained.  I was familiar with the technique.  But I stayed there [only] a short time.  From there I went to Buffalo, New York.  I left Europe.

You say it was otherwise very disagreeable living in Graz?

Yes, there was even less food there than in Vienna, and the university was in sort of a turmoil.  Loewi really couldn’t stay there because of his being of Jewish ancestry.  That was very disagreeable.

Where did he go after he left Graz?

He came to the United States eventually, but he was by that time retired.

Many years later he came to Washington University to visit you, did he not?  Or was it to Buffalo that he came?

Well, it was the other way around, I visited him.  We often went to Woods Hole in summertime.

By this time you had considerable experience as a pharmacologist and yet, ten years later, people were questioning whether you were a pharmacologist at all.

I knew more pharmacology than my colleagues gave me credit for, and I also published some papers [employing] pharmacologic techniques where they couldn’t deny that I knew pharmacology.  But they didn’t like my going into biochemistry and turning biochemistry into pharmacology.

So Americans were more rigid on disciplinary lines than was the case in Europe?

They allowed chemistry of course, but only to modify drugs or synthesize drugs or things like that, but not to introduce biochemistry into the teaching of pharmacology.  Nowadays it is understood.

In 1922 you elected to come to the United States, I believe, and you [were hired as] a biochemist at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease in Buffalo.  Was this move a kind of shot-in-the-dark for you or did you know where you were going, pretty much?

No, I didn’t know exactly what the institution would be like.  The then-director, [Harvey R.] Gaylord, had been to Vienna and had asked Meyer, the retired head of pharmacology, whether he could recommend somebody.  Since I was working there and had gotten some results, Meyer recommended me.  That’s how I got to know Gaylord, who interviewed me briefly.

Did you speak English well by this time?

Not particularly [well], but enough to communicate.

It was a half year later that Gerty Cori came to Buffalo, and in doing so she had to leave a position at the Children’s Hospital in Vienna, did she not?

Well, that was not a paid position, you know, nor was my position paid in any way.  We were volunteers; they had no money to pay us.  We had some privileges such as eating in the mess room.

She was then what we would call a clinical faculty member?

She may have obtained a position on the clinical faculty.  She did some research work there.

So, what were her feelings about coming to Buffalo?

Well, I think she also wanted to leave Europe and I don’t think she objected to going to the United States.

Did she have a position promised her in Buffalo before she came?

No, at that time you could not be promised any position.  That was forbidden by law.  You could not hire somebody with the promise of giving the position in the United States.

There had to have been a great culture shock for you when you arrived in Buffalo and began your life there.  I mean, matters like Prohibition in the United States.

That did not faze us particularly.

They were very suspicious of foreigners at that particular time.

There was a certain amount of hostility, yes, understandably so if you came from the other side.  Gaylord told me later that he could not have hired a German, but they accepted Austrians without incident.

How did you live in Buffalo?  Were you able to set up a comfortable life for yourselves?

Yes, we made friends outside the medical school and so forth.  We [enjoyed] music.  We adapted.  There were many things we liked.

Did you live in an apartment?

We rented an apartment.

You mention in your article that your Buffalo laboratory was relatively primitive by modern standards.

One didn’t have very much instrumentation in those days.

How did it compare with European laboratories though, the ones that you had left?

Quite favorably.  That was the time when one worked with pipettes, test tubes, Erlenmeyer flasks, and such things.  Much other instrumentation didn’t exist in biochemistry.  Even when I started working in St. Louis there wasn’t very much equipment.

The chief objective of the State Institute was cancer research, was it not?  You quote Gaylord as saying, “Gentlemen, it behooves us to find the cause or cure of cancer and it’s got to be intravenous.”

It was not Gaylord who said that, but his successor, Dr. [Burton T.] Simpson.  Naturally, this is the sort of statement that you remember.

Was it in any way typical of attitudes at that time, or was that already an anomaly?

It was a slight anomaly to put it that way.

You mention, though, that they did allow you freedom to do your own research.  In connection with your study of mammary tumors at Buffalo, you had contact with Leo Loeb of Washington University.

Yes, when I went to the annual meetings of the Cancer Society, I met Leo Loeb and we became well acquainted.

What do you recall about him?  What kind of man was he?

Well, he was very sensitive because he had a brother, Jacques Loeb, whom he thought had overshadowed him.  But Leo Loeb on his own was a very good scientist, who had done a number of important things.  He was a very shy person, perhaps not an ideal teacher for medical students.

He gave his papers to the [Washington University School of Medicine] Archives and in these papers are many, many notebooks indicating his interest in politics and philosophy.

He was a very educated man and knew literature well.  But I never talked with him extensively about politics.  I wrote a short review of his life for the American Philosophical Society when he died.  This was assigned to me.  It was just a brief piece.

You indicated that you did some teaching when you were in Buffalo.

Yes, I taught at the University of Buffalo Medical School.  I knew all the people there.  I gave a talk on endocrinology which they assigned to me.

Were there any institutional connections between the State Institute and the University of Buffalo?

No institutional connections, only personal connections.  I knew the pathologist in the Buffalo General Hospital, for example, because he was in Prague when I studied medicine.

What was his name?

[Benjamin] Roman.

Now the Institute is called the Roswell Park Memorial Institute.  Has it now become part of the Medical Center?

No, it is still an independent institution.  But it has changed to such an extent that you hardly recognize it when you come back.  It is a much more important institution now than it used to be.  It is an interesting thing to me that bad beginnings can have a good ending and this is an outstanding example.

You were in Buffalo when the great economic Depression began.  But medical research was not so dependent on government funds as it is now.

This was a state supported institution.  Gaylord, the director, had very good political influence in Albany, so he got money for the institution.  It ran its own hospital.  The x-ray department had radium, large amounts of radium, and solutions to [effect] inhalation [therapy].  I did, in addition to my research and these other things, the clinical laboratory work on patients.  Samples, urine samples and other things, were [done] under my supervision.

You were the chief biochemist.  Was this your title, head of biochemistry?

Yes, but I was principally hired originally to do the routine laboratory work for the hospital patients.

Was there any way in which the Depression affected your life?

No, I don’t think so.

You were hired to come to Washington University by Philip Shaffer in 1931.

No, he couldn’t do quite that.  He suggested that they bring me here, but a faculty committee [made the offer to me].

He was the dean at the time.

No, [W. McKim] Marriott was the dean.  Before that time, I had been approached to come to St. Louis by the clinical Department of Internal Medicine.  The stipulation was that I would have to practice medicine.  I didn’t want to do that, so I didn’t accept the position.

Was this [David P.] Barr?

It was Barr who offered this position.  He came to Buffalo and talked to me at some length.  He wanted me as a laboratory worker, but also said I would have to go back to the practice of medicine, and I did not want to do that.

What do you recall about Barr as an individual?

Well, I liked him very much.  We sometimes played tennis together.  He lived, in fact, close to where we lived.

In Webster Groves [Missouri]?

Yes, in Webster Groves.

The position was that you were to replace Herbert Gasser.

Herbert Gasser was still [at Washington University.]  He was the professor of pharmacology and so I went there as a pharmacologist.  Gasser was still there for a year.

But hadn’t he already announced his retirement and the intention [was for you to replace him?]

He was not retiring.  He accepted a position as head of physiology at Cornell in New York but his laboratories weren’t ready to function.  So he stayed on for a year [at Washington University] but did not do any teaching.  I did most of the teaching when I came here.

Did you come, though, with the stipulation that you would succeed him as head of the department?

No, I was appointed then and there as the head of the department.

Now in the course of [your interview for the Department of Pharmacology] you met all of the principal faculty.  You met Joseph Erlanger [for example].

Well, I had to.  I was invited there, I was asked to give a lecture, and I was interviewed by the professors who were on the committee.  One of them was Erlanger and another one was Dr. [Robert J.] Terry, the anatomist.

What do you recall about Erlanger?

Well, we became very good friends and sometimes played handball together, shared vacations in Colorado and did some mountain climbing together.  So, I was well acquainted with him.

You write in your article that Terry had reservations about your appointment when you first interviewed and that, with your experience at the Marine Biological Station, you could show him [your competence].

When I came in I had been told by Leo Loeb that there was strong opposition.  With [Terry] I didn’t interact very well.  I came to his office and he was sitting behind the desk strewn with different bones.  I saw a bone that I recognized and played with it.  He asked me if I knew what I had in my hand and I said “Well, I believe, the inner ear of the whale.”  After that, the ice was broken and there was no more objection.

He was a medical researcher of almost another era, was he not?

Well, he came from the Edinburgh School of Anatomy.  I was familiar with [the approach to science taught there], which meant that you went into the greatest detail.  I had once a professor who lectured one hour about a single bone.  But medical schools have to have time to teach new things.  When there was a committee meeting on teaching, [the medical faculty at Washington University] always tried to cut down anatomy.  When I came, anatomy still had an inordinately large amount of time for teaching.  But it was whittled down while I was there.

He had a colleague, Dr. Cowdry—

[Interrupting] Trotter.

No, I was thinking about Edmund Cowdry.

Oh yes.  Cowdry was the professor of microscopic anatomy and Terry was the professor of gross anatomy.  [These disciplines were] sometimes divided in medical schools, but not always.

Did this represent any sort of trend away from gross anatomy?

It’s now become such a large field, microscopic anatomy, that it is justifiable separating it [from gross anatomy].  When time was taken away from anatomy, it was mostly from gross anatomy.

You mentioned Mildred Trotter; she was on the staff.

Of the anatomy department.  She was the “right hand man.” (Laughs)

You also met Dr. [Jacques] Bronfenbrenner?

Yes, he was professor of bacteriology and later that became microbiology.

What do you recall about him?

Well, he was a very nice man who took teaching very seriously.  He originally did research at the Rockefeller Institute.

He also was from Europe, was he not?

From Russia.

And then he’d gone to Paris.

He spoke Russian.  But [these professors you have mentioned] were all much older than I.  When I came I was rather young: and in 1931, when I went to St. Louis, I was thirty-five years old.  They were all in their fifties or sixties.

Then I guess the generation gap would have been a factor.  You also met the clinical heads at that time.

Yes, Barr I knew anyway, and Dr. [Evarts A.] Graham I got to know very well because his wife, Helen Graham, was in the pharmacology department.

What do you recall about Evarts Graham?

Well, he was a strong influence at the university, a very powerful man.  You accepted this as a matter of course.  He had a very good sense of humor and always had lots of stories to tell.  He was pioneering [procedures] in surgery, lots of lung operations and gall bladder operations.  He ran a well-known surgical department.  For example, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, which was, at that time, exceedingly rare for a clinician.

Graham was a strong supporter of pre-clinical research.

He himself had established a strong research organization in his own department.

What can you tell me about [W. McKim] Marriott – to complete mention [of principal Washington University medical faculty]?

Marriott was a pediatrician.  We often went walking on Sundays together in the Ozarks.  He liked to be an outdoor man.

Didn’t he begin as a biochemist?

Yes, he worked with Dr. Shaffer.  He learned some biochemistry.  (All the clinical professors had some laboratory experience and supported laboratory work.)  He was a very clever dean, Marriott was.

Could you describe your laboratory as it was in the 1930s at Washington University?

Well, I can.  I took over a pharmacological laboratory which was basically a student laboratory equipped for pharmacological research.  We shared the student laboratory with physiology, and the equipment in the laboratory was geared to neurophysiology.  They had just started with the cathode ray oscillograph, which could record the action potential of nerves.  But for chemistry there was practically no equipment and I had to accumulate it slowly because money was not available.  We had to get some grants and [budget] the money over years to get, finally, good chemistry equipment.

What kind of agencies would have given grants at that period?

It was the Rockefeller Foundation that gave grants.

What was Gerty Cori’s reception at Washington University?  Particularly, since she had some hard time being accepted in Buffalo, did she have an easier time in St. Louis?

Yes, the only stipulation when I came was that she was not to have a high salaried position.

Did you immediately move to Webster Groves or did you first live close to the medical school?

We built a house on Berry Road and we moved into that after we rented a house.

Was it a pleasant experience, commuting from the suburbs to city?

No, it wasn’t much of a trip.  But we liked the outdoors (I was a fairly good mountain climber in those days; that’s why we spent our summers in Colorado), and in the suburbs we could get out.  We always took walks.

You had colleagues who were closer to your own age, maybe even junior colleagues, about whom you could perhaps tell me.  Was Earl Sutherland in pharmacology?

Yes, he studied medicine at Washington University and I gave him a job as a student assistant.  That’s how he got the money to finish [medical studies].  After he finished medicine and through the war years I gave him a position.

Severo Ochoa?

No, he came [as a postdoctoral fellow].  So did other people.  I eventually had a larger department, not in staff, but in coworkers, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.  I would also like to mention Arthur Kornberg, who came to us as a postdoctoral fellow, Christian de Duve, and Herman Kalckar.

You mentioned Helen Graham.  What do you recall about her?

She was on the teaching staff and she continued to work in neurophysiology.  She was a great teacher.  Eventually she gave a course in statistics, which is important in pharmacology, and she was one of the first to give such a course.

I read somewhere that she and Evarts Graham were able to help you personally with some family matters after World War II.

No, they did not.

You were, at any rate, on good terms with both of them as individuals?


During World War II you were effectively head of two departments.

Yes, it was then that Dr. Shaffer became dean and he asked me to look after the teaching of biochemistry.  So I taught [both] pharmacology and biochemistry.

Was it particularly difficult to head two departments?


There was some talk that you would take overall responsibility for all the pre-clinical training.

Yes, that was Dr. Shaffer’s idea and wish and I definitely refused to do that.  It so happened that when this became an active problem, I was recovering from viral pneumonia (the only ailment I had while I was in St. Louis), and I was in Florida.  I was recovering there and I was called up on the telephone.  They said if I wouldn’t do that, they would appoint someone in pharmacology, and I said, “Go ahead, by all means do it.”  That was when Ollie Lowry came.  I didn’t want to do that: number one, I was not interested in administration, and number two, I firmly believed that the two should be separate departments; otherwise they don’t develop.  Pharmacology needed the separation from [biochemistry].  If I had directed the whole South Building, which contained biochemistry, pharmacology and physiology, all three would have suffered because I probably would have emphasized biochemistry.

You had a marked personal preference for biochemistry by that time.

Yes, by that time.

Yet I have heard it said, and this is only hearsay, that you, along with Dr. [Evarts] Graham, in effect ran the medical school.

I never aspired to running the medical school.  Evarts Graham really ran the clinical sciences, but I never aspired to run the pre-clinical departments.  I didn’t want to do that.  It would have taken too much time away from research.

You were succeeded by Oliver Lowry.  What do you recall about him when he first came to Washington University?

He complained that we had left him no equipment. (Laughs)  We sometimes joked about that.  But he was also a biochemist and not a pharmacologist.  Of course, the old pharmacologists held all this against me.  Ochoa, when he left, became professor of pharmacology.  Another biochemist moved into pharmacology, Ollie Lowry.  Then there was Arnold Welch, who also was more “chemically inclined.”  So that was the general thing held against me by the old pharmacologists, that I was introducing biochemistry, not pharmacology.

In the Department of Biochemistry, there was a member by the name of Ethel Ronzoni, and I’m told you had some difficulties in getting along with her.  Is that the case?

No, not real difficulties.  But I didn’t keep her on when I became head of the Department of Biochemistry.

It wasn’t that you couldn’t stand working with her?

No, I think we [authored] one or two papers in common.  She didn’t do very much at that time scientifically.

Thus far, I have skirted any mention of the work that led to your Nobel Prize.  Was there any speculation before your winning the Nobel Prize that you might be a candidate?

No, I had no idea.  We didn’t hear from Sweden beforehand.

How was the news broken to you that you were the winner?

Well, a journalist appeared the night before and interviewed me and told us, naturally, why he was interviewing us and that’s how we heard about it.

And then the next day you got official confirmation?

Yes, while I was lecturing.

How did this award affect your research career, did it make it easier for you, or harder?

Well, it certainly had the effect of [making you] work harder because you wanted to prove to your colleagues that this was not a freak, that you deserved it.  Our laboratory was known before, but after [the award], we had more applications and more people wanted to come in.

How about more support for your research activities, did this open up doors for grants?


You received offers from other medical schools beginning at that time, including Harvard.  Why didn’t you go?

Because I was happy enough in St. Louis, I had what I wanted from my work and [to leave would have cost] a lot of time.  I could have gone to Cleveland, to Harvard, to the Rockefeller Institute.  I had a very firm offer at the Rockefeller Institute, where Herbert Gasser was the director.  He offered me a big job, but the Rockefeller then was not a university, and it was really separated from the young people I liked.  I like young people around, people in all stages of development.

Gerty Cori, of course, was your co-recipient of the Nobel Prize.  How did this affect her life?

Of course, it put her more into the limelight, since at that time very few women [were so honored].  But I don’t think it affected our lives as much as you [might] think.

Did she have her own laboratory by this time?

Our laboratory facilities were always very small and we never had a very big staff.  People worked on a small scale by present standards, on a very small scale.  Gerty always worked with her own hands.

Where she worked was across the corridor from you, is that correct?  Or did she work in the same room?

We sometimes worked in the same room.

How was the teamwork?  Did you each make independent verifications of your findings?

Well, in the first place, she could do more laboratory work than I since she was not diverted by teaching.  She was invited to give lectures and things like that; [but] she was not diverted by teaching and by administration and by committee meetings.  She spent her whole day in the laboratory and so she did many experiments that I couldn’t do.

Would Gerty Cori like to have taught, or was she happy not to?

She was not interested in teaching medical students.  She had on occasion her own graduate students, so her teaching was more on the graduate level.

There was a third recipient of the Nobel Prize that year, Bernardo Houssay.  What communication, if any, did you have with him prior to the award?

Well, he sent us some reprints, we sent him our reprints, and I had met him several times.  He was a very well educated man who did some pioneer work in endocrinology.

Was all his work in Argentina or did he work elsewhere?

He worked mainly in Argentina.

Was the international research climate different immediately after World War II, or had there been a gradual movement toward broad international contacts?

The prominent people in research everywhere always kept contacts.

So it was not suddenly a more international scientific community.

Argentina was not a particularly favorable place to do research.

Those were the Peron years in Argentina.

Luis Leloir was also at work with me.

And he too was Argentine?

He is the only really prominent researcher now in Argentina.  Of course, he is in a private institution.

About this time, you began, I believe, pushing for additional research space at Washington University.

Well, that was the first step.  You know [in the South Building] pharmacology was originally shoved in between biochemistry below and physiology up above, so it had only half a floor, and that included the lecture room.  If you go to the South Building you will agree that half a floor was not very much space.  So when [my] negotiations were on with the Rockefeller Institute and when they finally pressed me to make a decision, I said [to Washington University:] “I’ll stay here if you increase the laboratory space for the pre-clinical departments.”

When another building was built, it was called the Cancer Research Building, was it not?

No, the building that was then built was the connecting link between the North Building and the South Building, it made it an “H,” [together with] the North and South Buildings.

Well, it’s officially called the Cancer Research Building.  Is that because they had to officially designate it for cancer research, as a part of the stipulation for getting the money?

I think so.  Into that building moved biochemistry and physiology, and also pharmacology.  But cancer research was in that building also.

You worked a great deal administratively with Dr. Barry Wood in internal medicine.

Yes, he was the successor of David Barr.

What do you recall about him?

As you know, he left and joined Johns Hopkins where he became professor of microbiology.  I think he was more of a research man than a physician.  He ran a good department, but his heart was not in clinical medicine.

The dean by the early fifties was Robert Moore.  How did you get along with him?

I never had a bad relationship with anybody.

Was he an effective dean?

Yes, he was a good dean.

In looking a little beyond that into the early sixties: you were a member of the executive faculty, of course, and you were party to negotiations with the trustees of Barnes Hospital for a renewal of the contracts between the Medical School and the hospital.  This particularly involved dealing with Barnes chairman, Edgar Queeny.  It was a particularly trying episode for both institutions.  Could you tell me something about that?

I think that Queeny was a strange man who thought that people who took full-time positions at Washington University didn’t live on a fixed salary and that there was something wrong with people who didn’t make money.  The full-time people worked full-time, you see.  If they made money through private practice they paid it back to the medical group.  A surgeon, particularly if he worked outside, could make six times the salary that Washington University paid.  [Queeny] didn’t think that people who accepted [an academic salary] were quite right in their heads.

He never pressed for a separation of Barnes Hospital from the Medical School, did he?

Well, he built a building next to Barnes Hospital and he hoped that thereby he could break down the rule whereby department people were appointed by Washington University.  He thought that more part-time people should move in and should be allowed to practice in the hospital without being selected by the university.  He hoped that throughout that building there would be offices that would help them “sneak in” [to hospital practice.]

The building is called Queeny Tower.

[Queeny’s plan] didn’t work out.

Well, I can guess why the Medical School was so much against him.  But could you formulate what their position was?  Edward W. Dempsey was the dean of the Medical School.

He suffered a great deal during that time.

It became almost a personal confrontation between these two men, Dempsey and Queeny, did it not?

Well, it was a very disagreeable time.  The faculty was a bit divided, too.  They all expected to get a lot of money from Queeny because he had no heirs.  But it didn’t [happen].

This is a factor that I’ve never heard of.  It meant waiting for the golden goose to lay the golden egg.  Who supported the change more along the lines that Queeny sought within the Medical School?

This is past history, a very sore point.  But that was the main problem, that the faculty was divided.

Gerty Cori died in 1957.  She had a long bout with anemia, is that correct?

Ten years.

And did this gradually affect her capacity as a researcher?

She worked more or less until the year that she died.

You were a single man for three years, and then in 1960 you married Anne Fitzgerald Jones.  Could you tell me about her?  To my knowledge, she was not connected with medicine at all.

Yes.  No, she is not a scientist.

Is she in any way related to the Jones family who were benefactors of [St. Louis] Children’s Hospital?

Yes.  Her first husband was the grandson of Robert McKittrick Jones.

You retired in 1966, but before you did, in the 1960s, what was your work at Washington University like?

Well, I continued working with postdoctoral fellows and did a fair amount of work.  I’m still doing it.

As you approached retirement did it cause personal anxiety for you that you would have to release control [over your department]?

I decided then and there that I wouldn’t stay on.  After retirement, you don’t have the facilities any more, you don’t have anybody to work with, you don’t have any equipment, and you’re only in the way of your successor if you stay on.

But, many do; for example, Dr. [Oliver] Lowry has stayed on after he was succeeded by Dr. [Philip] Needleman.

Well, that depends on the circumstances.  But I decided in my case right away to move out.  I worked to the last moment, paid no attention to retirement until it was time to move out, and then I had several offers.

Did you have any voice in the selection of your successor?

No, none whatsoever.

As for your successor, Dr. [Roy] Vagelos, did you get along with him?

I didn’t know him, and we did not overlap.  By the time he came I had left.

For a time you were in the anatomy department.  Is my information correct?

They found room for me in the anatomy department, an office near the library and, in addition, a laboratory.  Eventually they promised me that I could have one collaborator.  But I had no equipment, of course.

And it was precisely a situation [that you had seen before.]  Did you resent it at all?

No, I think that you have to make room for younger people.  It was the natural course of events.  The only difference is that I didn’t stay in St. Louis, but moved on.

Where did you go immediately after leaving St. Louis?

I came to the Massachusetts General Hospital.

And you were in the Enzyme Research Laboratory?

Well, they gave me that title.  It was a pleasant laboratory.

It was over ten years that you were there, then.

Yes, Washington University said I could stay there maybe three years.  [A longer extension, I was told] would be very difficult.  I felt that I was probably good for longer than three years.

So you were officially on leave for three years from Washington University?

No, I don’t think so.

For a time, the [annual Medical School course] catalogs indicated that.

I am still listed as professor emeritus; in fact, there was a little move [toward inviting me] back.

Where would you have gone had you come back, where would you have set your laboratory up?

Well, they didn’t make any specifications.  It was simply that the present chancellor, who was then the vice chancellor for medical affairs, [wanted me back].

He had been a student of yours, Dr. [William] Danforth.

Yes, Danforth worked with me for several years.

What was it like to work at Massachusetts General Hospital?

It was very pleasant.  I wanted the facilities, I had grants [whereby I] could buy equipment then and I have since moved most of the equipment here [to the Harvard Department of Biological Chemistry].  I was in a building called, “Temporary II.”  It was temporary since World War II. (Laughs)  Eventually it had to come down, so I had to move out when the building came down.

I take it that you had no problems at MGH like at Barnes Hospital, no questions but that it should be a research hospital?  I mean, the administration fully accepted research departments within the hospital, didn’t it?

Oh yes.  I was years ago on the scientific advisory committee of MGH.  And it was during that time that I helped to persuade the trustees to build a research building.

So in many respects, they owed you a great debt.

I don’t know, I was one of several trustees.  I mean, I’ve been on both sides of the fence.

What was it like to live in Boston?

Very pleasant.  We had many friends before we came.

You alluded to the fact that you have done research at Woods Hole.

I never worked at Woods Hole.  I spent one summer there when I was supposed to write a review but never got to write a single line.  After that, I thought of Woods Hole as a place where you can’t go out on the street without meeting somebody.  You have to go to cocktail parties.  You can’t do any work there.  So I decided it was not the place [for me].

You go back to Europe frequently, I understand.

I only go to Europe if there is a meeting, or something.  I never travel per se.  There has to be some occasion.

You never go for family or sentimental reasons?

I have very little family left in Europe.  I like to visit northern Italy.  We have some friends there.  But there is generally a meeting connected.  Last summer we drove through Europe on the way to a meeting in Scotland.  We stretched things to stay a little longer.

Among the lines of the conversation that we’ve had here today, is there anything that’s been left unsaid?

I suppose that there are many things left unsaid, but you’ve covered a certain part of my life.  You can hardly cover it in all its aspects.

I want to thank you very much for speaking with me.

It was very nice.


Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of these oral history transcripts. If you discover an error or would like to offer suggestions, please click here to contact us.
Home | Browse the Interviews | Index of Names | Rights & Permissions | About this Project