Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the DAR

Marian Anderson by Carl Van Vechten (source)

Marian Anderson by Carl Van Vechten (source)

On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson performed in what may be her most famous concert in the United States. It began with a stirring rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The interracial crowd was estimated at 75,000 and the radio audience in the millions. Her final selection was the Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and in finishing this concert, Marian became a powerful symbol for African American artists, in part because the concert came about due to the bigotry of others.

Marian Anderson was born in 1897 to John Berkley Anderson and his wife Annie Delilah Rucker. The Andersons were a devout Christian family with significant musical talent. (Marian and both of her younger sisters would all go on to become singers.) At the age of six, Marian’s Aunt Mary convinced her to sing in the church choir. This gave her the opportunity to sing solos and duets and she soon began singing at other functions around the community.

Marian Anderson c. 1920 (source)

Marian Anderson c. 1920 (source)

After graduating high school, Marian wanted to study music at the Philadelphia Music Academy, but was rejected because she was black. Instead she studied privately with the help of people in her community. She won a contest to sing with the New York Philharmonic in 1925 and after a number of other concerts sang at Carnegie Hall. But racial prejudice made it difficult to build a career in the United States, so she moved to Europe.

Marian’s career in Europe was very successful. She toured and made contacts that would help form her future career, including Kosti Vehanen and Sol Hurok who would be her accompanist/vocal coach and manager, respectively, for the rest of her career. She also made a profound impression on the composer Jean Sibelius who became her friend and adapted and composed songs for Marian throughout her career. Although she had thousands of fans in Europe, Hurok convinced Marian to return to the US in the late 1930s where she toured and became famous, although racial prejudice still presented roadblocks.

Because she was so popular, in 1939 when Howard University planned to host a concert with Marian, a large turnout was expected. The only hall large enough to hold the expected crowd was Constitution Hall belonging to the Daughters of the American Revolution. When they were approached, the DAR refused to allow a black artist to perform in the Hall. This caused quite a stir which prompted the resignation of many members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Marian Anderson before the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

Marian Anderson before the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

The First Lady had considered what to do. She wrote in her newspaper column about the sometimes difficult choice of whether to remain in an organization and work for change from within, or to leave the organization in protest. At times Eleanor felt that making a problem public was not the best strategy, but the rejection of Marian Anderson by the DAR was already public, so she chose to leave the organization and let it be known why.

Not long before this, Eleanor had attended the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama. The Conference had a large number of black delegates, but the city insisted that they adhere to the cities segregation laws. When Eleanor arrived with her friend Mary McLeod Bethune, the police told her that she couldn’t sit with her friend. Her solution was to have her chair moved to the center aisle where she would sit neither on the “white” side nor the “colored” side. This caused quite a stir as did her resignation from the DAR.

Eleanor’s decision to resign from the DAR received world-wide attention. She had her opponents, but many more who supported her decision. In the wake of the uproar, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, and Marian’s manager Sol Hurok came up with the idea of an open air concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. With the support of both the President and First Lady, they approached Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange it. The gathering was a great success.

Marian Anderson went on to have a long distinguished career. She was the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera; she continued to tour in Europe and toured Australia, India, and the Far East; and she entertained troops during WWII. In 1943, she even performed at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR as a benefit for the Red Cross.

It seems fitting that Marian would begin her final concert tour at Constitution Hall in October 1964 and end at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965. Although officially retired she continued to appear publicly. She was active in the civil rights movement, giving benefit concerts and inspiring many others. Marian was the recipient of many awards during her life including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the United Nations Peace Prize, and the George Peabody Medal.

Resources

Eleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers by Joseph P. Lash
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume I, 1884 – 1933 by Blanche Wiesen Cook
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume II, 1933 – 1938 by Blanche Wiesen Cook

Caroline Herschel – 18th Century Astronomer

Caroline Herschel c. 1829 (source)

Caroline Herschel c. 1829 (source)

As a girl, Caroline Herschel’s expectations were limited, but she had a quick mind and the ability to learn. Although most of what Caroline learned would be to benefit and help her brother, she went on to become a brilliant astronomer in her own right, discovering nebulae, star clusters, and eight comets.

Caroline Herschel was born March 16, 1750 in Hanover (now in Germany.) She was the fifth of six children born to Isaac Herschel and Anna Moritzen. Her parents were industrious and hard-working, her mother a housewife and her father a gardener and musician. Her mother saw no need to educate a girl, but Caroline was able to learn the basics of reading and writing, and because of the family talent for music, her father insisted that she learn to play the violin.

Caroline suffered a couple of childhood illnesses that left their mark; smallpox when she was three left her with scars and a damaged left eye; typhus at the age of ten stunted her growth, leaving her with an adult height of 4′ 3″. Her mother showed her little affection and envisioned Caroline as her housekeeper. Her father reminded her frequently that she was unlikely to find a husband because she had no fortune or beauty. She was probably looking at a bleak future.

In 1767, Caroline’s father died and her favorite brother William, who had moved to England, suggested that she come live with him. William’s intention was to make his living as a musician and to study astronomy, and he wanted Caroline to come keep his house. At first her mother refused to give up the work that Caroline did for her, but she agreed when William promised to send her the money to get a maid to make up for Caroline’s absence. So in 1772 at the age of 22, Caroline returned with her brother to England.

Telescope made for Caroline by William in 1795 (Photo: Wikipedia user Geni, source)

Telescope made for Caroline by William in 1795 (Photo: Wikipedia user Geni, source)

Even though she still kept house, Caroline’s life was completely different with her brother. She studied math for the first time, so that she could keep his household accounts. William gave her voice lessons and she learned to play the harpsichord so that she could accompany him. Soon she became well-known for her singing and began to get engagements for solos, although she refused if William couldn’t be the conductor. William also insisted that she take lessons in dancing and how to conduct herself in society. She thought many of the people she met in society shallow, but the lessons would serve her well because she and William soon came to the attention of King George III for their work in astronomy.

William’s astronomy work began to take up more and more of his time. Displeased with the telescopes available he began to build his own and was soon selling them to others. Caroline and their brother Alexander ground by hand the mirrors needed for the telescopes, and Caroline did William’s calculations, carefully cataloging his observations in the night sky.

On March 13, 1781, William spotted what he thought was a new comet, but after careful observation realized that it was a planet. His discovery of the planet Uranus brought him to the attention of the King. The next year William was made the official astronomer of King George III and received a pension of £200. Caroline was no longer just a helper, but an apprentice and would soon be credited with her own discoveries. This also brought with it more visibility in society and with the royal family. William and Caroline were often invited to Windsor, and Caroline got to know the princesses Sophia and Amelia as she patiently answered their questions about the stars.

Caroline never wanted to outshine her brother, but in 1783 while he was away she discovered 3 nebulae. Then on August 1, 1786, she discovered her first comet. This discovery brought her to the attention of the scientific community and The King gave her a small salary for her work as William’s assistant. It was only £50, but she wrote in her diary that it was the first money she had ever received that she felt she could spend on whatever she wished.

Sir William Herschel c. 1805 by James Sharples (source)

Sir William Herschel c. 1805 by James Sharples (source)

Around this time William got married and Caroline began doing more work on her own. Between 1788 and 1797, she discovered seven more comets and began work on revising Flamsteed’s star catalog. She verified the information, made corrections, and added 560 stars that she and William had observed. She submitted this catalog to The Royal Society for publication. But her most impressive and recognized work was The Reduction and Arrangement in the Form of Catalogue, in Zones, of All the Star-Clusters and Nebula Observed by Sir William Herschel in His Sweeps. For this work, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded her a Gold Medal calling it “a work of immense labor” and “an extraordinary monument to the unextinguished ardor of a lady of seventy-five in the cause of abstract science.”

The medal from the Royal Astronomical Society was awarded to her in 1828, six years after William’s death and after she had returned to Hanover. She also received medals from the King of Denmark and the King of Prussia, and in 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society bestowed honorary membership on two women for the first time, Caroline Herschel and Mary Somerville. The extract for the award stated that “the time is gone by when either feeling or prejudice, by whichever name it may be proper to call it, should be allowed to interfere with the payment of a well-earned tribute of respect.”

For Caroline, however, her crowning achievement probably came only a few months before she died. The work mentioned above was the basis for her nephew’s study of his fathers work. William’s vast undertaking, The Survey of the Heavens, was completed when his son Sir John Herschel completed and published the survey of the heavens in the southern hemisphere. She received a copy of Cape Observations just months before she died on January 9, 1848 at the age of 97.

Even in her death she was concerned for her brother’s fame. Her epitaph, which she composed, states in part “The eyes of her who is glorified were here below turned to the starry heavens. Her own discoveries of comets and her participation in the Immortal labors of her brother, William Herschel, bear witness of this to future ages.” Working with her brother, she advanced the science of astronomy and the recognition of women in science.

Caroline Herschel at 92 (source)

Caroline Herschel at 92 (source)

Resources
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century
by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie
Women in Science by H. J. Mozans

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science

Lou Henry Hoover – Herbert’s True Partner

Lou Hoover's official White House portrait.

Lou Hoover’s official White House portrait.

Lou Henry Hoover was born and grew up during a time when the roles of women were changing. Property laws had changed for married women; traditionally male colleges were beginning to admit women; and more and more women were going to college and preparing for careers of their own.

Many of these women remained single, because even though appliances were being introduced to make homemaking easier, it was still a full time job, especially if the family included children. Another way that women were fulfilling their desire to have a career was by becoming a partner with their husband. Lou Henry Hoover was her husband’s partner in every sense.

Lou Henry was born March 29, 1874 in Waterloo, Iowa to Charles and Florence Ida Weed Henry. Her only sibling was a sister eight years her junior, and her mother was often unwell, so Lou spent a good deal of time with her father camping, hiking, and horseback riding. When it came time to go to college, she chose a school that boasted of the “best gymnasium west of the Mississippi,” and then moved on to a teacher’s college to get her certificate, but she wasn’t satisfied intellectually.

Lou Hoover on ice skates as a girl

Lou ice skating as a young girl.

Lou loved everything associated with the outdoors, including rocks, so when she heard a lecture from a Stanford geology professor, she decided that geology was what she wanted to do. She enrolled in Stanford and became the only woman in the geology department and later the first American woman to get a degree in geology. Stanford satisfied her intellectual needs and she also discovered what would become her life’s work – Herbert Hoover.

Lou and Herbert were born the same year, both in Iowa, but they didn’t meet until Lou arrived at Stanford. Herbert was in his final year and was very shy and introverted. They initially met in one of the geology labs, but didn’t begin to get to know each other until they were paired at a dinner party given by one of the geology professors. They found that they had many things in common and began to spend a lot of time together enjoying the outdoors.

Once Herbert graduated, he began his career with small jobs in the area and by the time he got his first big break, he and Lou were informally engaged. Herbert had graduated with degrees in geology and mining engineering and his first major job took him to Australia to develop a gold mine.  In the meantime Lou finished her degree and began teaching.

Lou Henry on a burro around 1891

Lou Henry ca. 1891

Lou had told her sorority sisters that she and Herbert would get married as soon as he had a job that would keep him in one place for a while. It would be a long time before that happened, so they decided not to wait. He had done an excellent job in Australia developing new methods for mining, so soon he was offered the job of Chief Engineer for a mining company in China. He telegraphed his marriage proposal to Lou and she accepted by return wire. They decided to be married immediately and honeymoon in route to China.

Lou and Herbert were married February 10, 1899 at her parent’s house in Monterrey, CA. They immediately loaded their suitcases with books on Chinese culture and history and headed to San Francisco to sail for China. After a few days in a hotel in Shanghai they moved into their new home in the foreign settlement of Tianjin, China.

From the beginning Lou was a partner with her husband. Part of his job was locating new sites for mines which required travel through rugged wilderness terrain. She loved the adventure and helped Herbert with paperwork and maps. She also loved entertaining and opened their home to other people within the foreign community and to Herbert’s employees. However, it became too dangerous for Lou to go out on expeditions, and soon Herbert pulled all of his people in from the field. They had arrived in China during the midst of the Boxer Rebellion.

The Boxer Rebellion was a nationalist movement opposing foreign influence and Christianity. At the end of June 1900, the Boxers laid siege to the foreign settlement in Tianjin. The people set up a barricade with sacks of flour and rice and a makeshift hospital. Lou helped to tend the wounded and served tea to the men manning the barricades. She was calm and collected in spite of having her bicycle tire shot out while she was riding to the hospital one day and having a shell come through a window and explode in her house taking out a support column for the staircase. Reports say that when people rushed into the house to see if she was okay, she was sitting at a table playing solitaire. She calmly told them that she was having trouble winning that game and that the shelling was over for now because the shells always came in groups of three. The siege lasted until foreign troops arrived July 13 and defeated the rebels.

Lou Hoover with her children c. 1908

This same calm confidence would also serve Lou well during their next stop in London. Herbert’s new job required world-wide travel. Lou went with him and after their two boys were born in 1903 and 1907, they traveled as well. Both children embarked on their first journeys at the young age of 5 – 6 weeks. The Hoover’s conclusion was that infants traveled better than most adults.

The Hoovers were planning to return to the United States when WWI broke out. They stayed and from their London home helped displaced Americans by distributing food, clothing, cash, and finally tickets home. While they were waiting, Lou helped them keep their children occupied with museum tours and other activities. She also got involved in organizing women to support the troops, even starting a knitting factory to provide work for unemployed women and clothing for the army. When this was winding down, Herbert’s considerable organizational skills were noticed by the American ambassador and he was approached to become the chairman of the Belgian Relief effort. As usual Lou helped Herbert in this undertaking as well and was presented with the Cross Chevalier, Order of Leopold by King Leopold of Belgium for her efforts.

When the US entered the war, Hoover was called back to Washington to head the Food Administration and later to direct the European relief efforts. During these years, Lou began doing more public speaking, raising money for the relief efforts for Belgium during the war and for all of Europe after the war. Herbert Hoover is often called “The Great Humanitarian,” but his success was in no small part due to Lou’s tireless efforts.

Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover at Camp Rapidan in Virginia
Herbert Hoover NHS Collection

After Herbert became part of Harding’s Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce, their lives revolved around Washington DC. They were constantly entertaining, but these were almost always working meetings. The Hoovers both deplored inefficiency, so their entertaining had to be productive. Lou also persuaded the other Cabinet wives to discontinue the practice of spending 3 or 4 afternoons a week leaving their cards at other people’s houses.

The years in the White House were difficult ones. They still entertained; in fact the White House staff reported that the only time the Hoovers ate alone in the first three years was on their wedding anniversary each year. Lou also became the first First Lady to speak regularly on the radio. Yet from the beginning, this very sociable woman protected their privacy in a way that many First Ladies didn’t, even prohibiting reporters from taking casual photos and providing studio portraits instead. Devastated by Hoover’s loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, it was probably a relief to retire to their Palo Alto home.

The Hoover’s home in Palo Alto, CA is now the home of the President of Stanford University.

Lou Hoover was an interesting mix of feminist causes and traditional ideals. She didn’t get involved in the suffrage movement, but once women were able to vote, she encouraged them to do their patriotic duty and got involved with the League of Women Voters. She encouraged girls to get an education and prepare for a career, but said that she believed that a couple could only sustain one career, the husband’s or the wife’s. Although her ideas were inclined toward more freedom and independence for women, she embraced a very traditional role for herself. In this she reflected the changing and sometimes contradictory views of women in society at the time. This was also possible because she was fortunate to find a life partner who respected her considerable abilities and intellect.

Although Herbert would be called back into public service by President Truman to direct the European relief effort after WWII, he would have to do it alone. On January 7, 1944, while changing clothes between a concert and dinner, Lou had a heart attack and died. But this very public woman had one last secret. During the White House years especially, Lou had given many speeches encouraging people to reach out to help their neighbors and communities during the hard years, but even Herbert didn’t know the extent to which she was doing it herself until after she died. Many people contacted him after her death wondering why checks had stopped coming. This is one of the reasons that Herbert requested that her papers be sealed for 40 years after her death, to protect the privacy of the people she helped.

Lou was a very accomplished woman. She spoke five languages, including Mandarin Chinese. Together she and Herbert translated from Latin to English a 16th century mining text, De re metallica,  which was well received by the scientific community and is still available today. She also designed their Palo Alto home. But when asked, Lou would say that her vocation was helping her husband in his career, and that is the way she was remembered. The Memphis Scimitar after her death said that “One of Mrs. Hoover’s chief characteristics was her ability to be of great aid to her husband yet remain completely in the background.”

Resources
First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
Lou Hoover: Gallant First Lady by Helen B. Pryor M.D.
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.

Gertrude Belle Elion – Nobel Prize Winner in Medicine

Gertrude Belle Elion, unknown date, courtesy of the National Cancer Institute (source)

Gertrude Belle Elion, unknown date, courtesy of the National Cancer Institute (source)

“Acyclovir turned out to be different from any other compound Elion had ever seen. It is so similar to a compound needed by the herpes virus for reproduction that the virus is fooled. The virus enters normal cells and starts to make an enzyme that helps it reproduce. This enzyme activates Acyclovir and turns into something that is toxic to the virus. In short, Acyclovir makes the virus commit suicide.”

This is a quote from Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s excellent book Nobel Prize Women in Science, which explains not only how one of the many compounds developed by Gertrude Belle Elion works, but also exemplifies her approach to research. She wanted to understand how the compounds were metabolized in the body and how they fought disease. Together with Dr. George Hitchings and a team of researchers at Burroughs Wellcome, she developed drugs that would change the lives of many people for the better, reducing suffering and extending lives.

Gertrude Belle Elion was born in New York City on January 23, 1918 to a Jewish immigrant family. Her father, Robert Elion, immigrated to the US from Lithuania when he was 12 and worked hard to graduate from New York University School of Dentistry in 1914. He was very successful, opening several dental offices, and investing in stocks and real estate. Her mother, Bertha Cohen, immigrated alone at the age of 14 to come live with older sisters who were already established. Bertha was 19 when she and Robert married, and although she never pursued higher education, she was a voracious reader who frequently read the books her children brought home from school. She came from an intellectual Russian Jewish family that valued education and knew how important it would be to her children’s futures.

When Gertrude, Trudy to the family, was six years old her brother Herbert was born. Shortly afterward, the family moved to the Bronx where they had a happy childhood. Before the move another person joined the family, her grandfather from Russia. His failing eyesight prevented him from continuing his profession as watchmaker, so after Herbert was born, he spent a great deal of time with Trudy forming a close bond. He was a Biblical scholar and spoke several languages; together they spoke Yiddish, and shared time in the park, the Bronx zoo, and music.

Trudy’s father was also a music lover, specifically the opera. He and Trudy often went to the Metropolitan Opera, a habit that Trudy would maintain for the rest of her life, flying to New York on weekends from North Carolina. Robert influenced her in another way. He was always planning imaginary trips using maps, train and bus schedules. After Trudy became successful, she began to travel, visiting many places in the world before her death in 1999.

Trudy was a successful student in high school, and when she graduated she entered Hunter College in 1933. She was a sponge for knowledge and enjoyed learning just about anything, but her decision to study science was made when she was 15 and watched her grandfather die painfully from stomach cancer. Trudy decided that no one should have to suffer as her grandfather had, so she wanted, if possible, to do something about it. Inspired as a girl by the life of Marie Curie and the book The Microbe Hunters by Paul DeKruif, she knew that she needed to study biology or chemistry, so she chose chemistry and graduated summa cum laude in 1937.

Robert Elion had lost most of his wealth in the crash of 1929, and although he still had his dental practice and loyal customers, there wasn’t much money for college. Hunter College, the women’s section of City College of New York, was free for those who could beat the fierce competition, but graduate school was a different story. Hunter was also an all-girl’s school, and Trudy had never really faced discrimination because of her gender. She placed many applications for fellowships and assistantships, but nothing came through. It was the Depression and there weren’t many jobs available, but there were none for women in fields that were dominated by men. In one eye-opening interview, she was told that she was qualified, but that they had never had a woman in the lab and they thought she would be a distraction!

Trudy’s mother had always encouraged her to have a career of some type, so she finally enrolled in secretarial school, but when she got the opportunity to teach biochemistry at the New York Hospital School of Nursing, she dropped out and took the job, even though it only lasted for 3 months. Finally, she met a chemist at a party and asked him if she could work in his lab as an assistant. He agreed, but couldn’t pay her anything to start. She was willing because it allowed her to continue learning and after a year and a half, she was making $20 a week and had saved enough living at home for one year of graduate school.

In the fall of 1939, Trudy entered New York University with money for one year’s tuition. She worked part-time as a receptionist and took education classes that allowed her to substitute teach in the public schools. In 1941, Trudy completed her Master’s Degree in Chemistry and began the task of looking for the perfect job. Her focus was always to look for jobs that would allow her to learn and get closer to her goal of working in medical research.

When WWII began, the demand for women increased in laboratories across the country. Trudy got a job in a laboratory doing quality control work for the A&P grocery chain. Always concerned with learning new things, when she felt she had learned as much as she could, she applied to an employment agency for research jobs. For about six months, she worked for a Johnson & Johnson lab until it was disbanded. Having gained the experience she needed, she then had a number of jobs to choose from, but was most intrigued by a job as an assistant to George Hitchings working for Burroughs Wellcome.

She found out about the job when her father asked her what she knew about the company after they sent some sample painkillers to his dental office. She decided to call and ask if they had a research lab and a job opening. She and Hitchings were a good match. He explained that he didn’t like the traditional trial and error method of drug research. He was also content to let her learn at her own pace and move from one area to another to satisfy her thirst for knowledge. While she had moved on from other jobs because she felt she had learned all she could, she never moved on from Burroughs Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline.) There was always something new to learn and she had the freedom to do it there. But more importantly, they began to make a difference in people’s lives.

Although Trudy started as Dr. Hitchings assistant, within two years she was publishing her own papers under his guidance and by the mid 1960s she had developed a reputation apart from Hitchings. This was in spite of not having a Ph.D. For two years, she worked on a Ph.D. at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute until the dean told her that she would have to quit her job and work full time on her degree. She wasn’t willing to quit her job, so she quit school. It was an agonizing choice to make, but she knew that she had the potential to make a difference where she was, so she stayed.

Her faith in the job paid off. In 1950, Elion synthesized two cancer treatments for leukemia. Both of these drugs are still used today and when combined with other drugs result in close to an 80% cure rate. One of these drugs, referred to as 6-MP, was found to suppress the immune system in rabbits. Reading about the rabbits, a British surgeon tried 6-MP in dogs with kidney transplants and found that it extended their lives. He contacted Elion and asked if they had similar compounds that he could try which might be more effective. One of these, later marketed as Imuran, proved to be very effective in suppressing the immune system and since 1962 has been given to most of the kidney transplant patients in the US.

But what Elion called her “final jewel” was Acyclovir. Prior to its unveiling in 1978, there hadn’t been much research done on viruses. It was assumed that any compound toxic enough to kill a virus would also be extremely toxic to normal cells. Because Acyclovir was so selective to the herpes virus, it was very nontoxic to normal cells. Not only was it a break through in treating herpes, but it was a break through in virus research, opening the doors to many new possibilities including treatments for AIDS.

The intervening years had brought life changes for Trudy as well. In 1941, she had been planning to get married to a brilliant young statistician named Leonard. He fell ill with a strep infection, bacterial endocarditis, and died, just a few years before penicillin became available. Her mother also died of cervical cancer in 1956. Both of these losses served to intensify Trudy’s drive to continue in her research.

In 1970, the company moved its research facility to the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. For a life long NYC resident this was quite a change. She adjusted well however, and it was here that she received the call in 1988 from a reporter telling her she had received the Nobel Prize together with Dr. Hitchings, and Sir James W. Black. She had already retired in 1983, but had remained in a consulting position. Winning the prize gave her a visibility that she had not had along with opportunities to contribute in many other ways.

In spite of the accolades that eventually came her way, what always meant the most to Trudy were the letters and handshakes she got from people who wanted to tell her how her discoveries had changed their lives. Although she never met anyone that could take Leonard’s place and never married, she loved her work, opera, traveling, and had loving relationships with her brother and his family. Gertrude Belle Elion lived a full and rewarding life and died in her sleep at her home in North Carolina on February 21, 1999, with a folder full of letters from people whose lives she had touched and whose lives she had helped save.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Academy of Achievement – A Museum of Living History
First Woman elected to the national inventor’s hall of fame 1991 (New York Times)

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science

Gerty Radnitz Cori – Nobel Prize Winning Biochemist

Gerty Radnitz Cori c. 1947, National Institutes of Health (source)

Gerty Radnitz Cori c. 1947, National Institutes of Health (source)

In the late 19th century after universities began admitting women, there were still challenges to overcome. Most secondary schools for girls focused on social graces and being a good conversationalist but didn’t prepare them for entrance to the university. When Gerty Radnitz at 16 decided that she wanted to go to medical school, she was completely unprepared. She overcame this disadvantage to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Gerty Theresa Radnitz was born August 15, 1896, in Prague which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her family was Jewish and moderately well off. Her father, Otto Radnitz, was a chemist who invented a method for refining sugar and managed several beet sugar refineries. The oldest of three girls, Gerty was tutored at home until the age of ten when she went to finishing school. Recognizing her talent, her uncle who was a physician encouraged her to go to medical school. With the help of family and tutors, over the next two years she accumulated the equivalent of 5 – 6 years study in Latin, mathematics, physics, and chemistry in preparation to take her entrance exams. She passed and at 18 enrolled at the German branch of the Charles Ferdinand University at Prague.

During her first year of university, Gerty discovered two things that changed her life: biochemistry and Carl Cori. Carl was the son of Carl Cori, a physician, and Martha Lippich. His father went on to get a doctorate in zoology and do research at the Marine Biological Station in Trieste where he was the director. He often took the younger Carl with him on field expeditions to do research and gather specimens. Trieste, in what is now northern Italy, was a diverse area where Carl was exposed to people of different backgrounds and developed what he called “immunity to racial propaganda.” The fact that Gerty was Jewish and he was Catholic didn’t bother him at all, but it would play a role later in their lives.

For two years they studied together and enjoyed taking trips for hiking or skiing, until in 1916, Carl was drafted into the Austrian army. In 1918, assigned to a field hospital for infectious disease, he saw first hand the effect of disease on the troops, as well as the impact of the Influenza pandemic sweeping the world. The Cori family had a history of scholarship, with a number of professors on both sides of the family. This combined with his sense of helplessness in the face of disease contributed to his desire to do research. Once the war was over, Carl and Gerty were reunited and received their medical degrees in 1920. They also published their first joint paper, beginning a collaboration that would last for their entire careers.

After receiving their degrees, they traveled to Vienna where they were married, and Carl and Gerty were both able to obtain positions doing post-doctoral research. The post war years were difficult. Research was a low priority and supplies were hard to obtain. Carl was one of the few able to do research, because his father sent him a bag of frogs. Gerty worked in pediatrics doing research on thyroid and blood disorders. The conditions were poor, however. She worked only for meals which were not very nutritious, causing her to develop a vitamin A deficiency. The fact that Gerty was a woman and Jewish, even though she had converted to Catholicism when she married made finding a position very difficult. Carl became even more uneasy about the situation in Europe when he was required to prove his Aryan ancestry for a position at Graz. They began considering moving to the United States.

Photo from the Smithsonian Institution Archives via Wikimedia Commons

After working in different cities, Carl in Graz and Gerty in Vienna, any position would only be acceptable to Carl if he could obtain a position for Gerty as well. Carl and Gerty Cori were ideally suited as research partners. William Daughaday of Washington University School of Medicine said “Carl was the visionary. Gerty was the lab genius.” In personality, they were the reverse of Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie. Carl was somewhat shy, relaxed, and a slower more contemplative thinker. Gerty was outgoing, vivacious, and a brilliant quick thinker. She was also more ambitious than Carl and more demanding in the lab.

Finally, in 1922, Carl obtained a position at the Institute for the Study of Malignant Disease (later renamed the Roswell Park Memorial Institute), in Buffalo, New York. Gerty was given a position as an assistant pathologist. Although they worked in different labs, they continued the practice of publishing papers together, even though Gerty was told more than once to stay out of Carl’s lab. Eventually, the benefit of allowing them to work together was acknowledged and the breach in protocol was overlooked. During their time in Buffalo from 1922 to 1931, Carl and Gerty established their reputations and became US citizens.

Gerty and Carl were primarily interested in studying insulin and the production of energy in the body. If you remember your high school biology, the Cori cycle explains how the body breaks down glycogen into glucose for use in muscles and converts lactic acid back into glycogen for storage in the liver. The discovery and explanation of this process in 1929 would be the basis for their Nobel Prize in 1947. This research, however, wasn’t a good fit for the work being done at the Institute, which was primarily focused on cancer research, so together the Cori’s began looking for other positions.

In spite of the fact that Gerty had published frequently, individually in addition to jointly with Carl, he began to receive job offers, not Gerty. Most of these offers, including those from Cornell and the University of Toronto, did not include a possibility for positions for her. At the University of Rochester, Carl was offered a position under the condition that he stop collaborating with his wife. Gerty was even taken aside and told that she was hindering his career because it was “un-American” for a husband and wife to work together. In fact it was very common for women to work in conjunction with their husbands during this time, although it was usually as low or unpaid “assistants” meaning that the wife rarely received recognition for her contribution. This was unacceptable to both Carl and Gerty.

Finally in 1931, they received job offers from the Washington University medical school in St. Louis. Even though Carl became the chairman of the pharmacology department, Gerty was only offered a position as a research associate at one-fifth the pay. Still they were able to collaborate and would remain at Washington University for the remainder of their careers doing groundbreaking research in glycogen utilization and with enzymes. During World War II, the demand for women scientists increased due to the reduced work force and Gerty finally became a full professor.

From left to right Dr. Carl F. Cori, Dr. Joseph Erlanger, Dr. Gerty T. Cori, and Chancellor Arthur H. Compton. Photo taken in 1947.
Copyright © Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine

Gerty and Carl were supportive of other scientists as well, hiring women and Jews when other universities and even other departments at Washington refused to do so. Eventually, the work done in their lab resulted in eight Nobel Prizes, including a joint prize for Carl and Gerty in Physiology and Medicine. Over time, Carl became more involved in writing, directing research of students, and administration, and running the lab became exclusively Gerty’s domain. As with many passionate people, she was not always liked or easy to work for. She demanded precision. The work and the results demanded it.

Both of the Coris impressed others with their depth of knowledge about a wide range of topics. For most of her time at Washington, Gerty had 5 – 7 books delivered weekly to her from a local lending library. Every Friday she would prepare her list for the next week. She loved history and biography, while Carl was a poet and read archeology and art. She was the one who constantly read journal articles and kept people in the lab up-to-date on new findings in biology and related fields.

The Coris worked hard, but also tried to leave work at the lab. They entertained, kept a garden, and continued enjoying the outdoors. It was on a mountain climbing trip in 1947 that Gerty first fell ill and they discovered she had a disease that would eventually take her life. Her bone marrow was no longer producing red blood cells. She worked almost to the end. Her only concessions to the disease were taking time out for the blood transfusions that were necessary, and setting up a cot in her office where she would lie down to do her reading. Gerty Cori died at her home on October 26, 1957.

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmark

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science