Rita Levi-Montalcini: Nobel Prize Winning Neurobiologist

Rita Levi-Montalcini, 2009, Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

Rita Levi-Montalcini in 2009, Photo credit: Presidenza della Repubblica (source)

During World War II, Rita Levi-Montalcini, as a Jewish woman, was forced to leave her research position at the University of Turin. However, she didn’t leave her research behind. Using homemade instruments, a basic microscope, an incubator built by her brother, and chicken eggs, she spent the war years observing the growth of nerve cells. This clandestine work laid the foundation for her discovery of Nerve Growth Factor which eventually led to receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Rita Levi was born April 22, 1909 into a wealthy Jewish family in Turin, Italy. She and her twin, Paola, were the youngest of the four children of Adam Levi and Adele Montalcini Levi. The Levi family was well established in Turin, since the Roman empire, and with so many relatives of the same name, Rita, who never married, eventually added her mother’s maiden name to distinguish herself professionally.

Adam Levi was an electrical engineer and an authoritarian with a quick temper. He had definite ideas of what was appropriate for girls, which was training to be good wives and mothers, so after Rita and Paola completed the 4th grade, they were sent to finishing school. Two of Adam’s aunts had doctorate degrees, one in literature and the other in mathematics. They also had unhappy marriages, which Adam attributed to their advanced education.

Rita’s mother Adele, an accomplished artist, was reserved and submissive. Perhaps for this reason, Rita wasn’t interested in marriage. Or perhaps it was because she considered her classes at finishing school “mindless”. Regardless, she had no interest in “children or babies” and “never remotely accepted [her] role as wife or mother.” Ever since her beloved nurse, Giovanna, died of stomach cancer, she had wanted to be a doctor, but saw no hope of attending medical school.

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Museum of Human Anatomy, University of Turin (source)

Finally at the age of 20, Rita had the courage to tell her father about her desire to be a physician. Although he disagreed, with her mother’s support she convinced him to hire tutors to help her prepare for the entrance exams to the university. Studying with her cousin Eugenia, they hired two tutors, one for mathematics and science, another for Latin and Greek. They studied subjects such as history and literature alone. After eight months of study, both Rita and Eugenia passed their exams and in 1930 Rita entered the University of Turin as a medical student.

At the university, Rita studied under another quick-tempered man, Giuseppe Levi, a leading histologist. Along with Rita, two other students of Levi went on to receive Nobel Prizes, Salvador Luria and Renato Dulbecco. Rita finished her degrees in 1936 and began to specialize in neurology, now working as Levi’s assistant, but in 1938 that changed when a new law forced Jews out of the university and professional jobs. Rather than emigrate from Italy, Rita’s family chose to remain.

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

Viktor Hamburger c. 1933 (source)

For a time, Rita practiced medicine among the poor, but she couldn’t write prescriptions. Then one day she read a journal article written by Victor Hamburger, one of the founders of developmental neurobiology, who happened to do research using chick embryos. This gave Rita the idea to start her own home laboratory. When Giuseppe Levi joined Rita in her work, her family’s home also became a meeting place for his other students.

In spite of her brother Gino’s name being on a most-wanted list for resistance activities, she was able to keep her activities hidden. But, when bombing began in Turin in 1941, the Levi family moved to the country and Rita had to rebuild her lab there. Supplies were more difficult to get, so she often rode her bicycle through the countryside asking farmers for eggs for “her babies.” When the country was invaded in 1943, the family moved again and using forged documents, found a place to hide in Florence, where they remained until Italy was liberated in August 1944.

Rita was unable to publish her research in Italy during the war because her name was Jewish, so she published in Belgian and Swiss journals. This time it was Rita who came to the attention of Victor Hamburger. In 1947, Hamburger was the director of the zoology department at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and after reading about her experiments asked Rita to visit for a semester. Some of her results contradicted his, and he wanted to know which was accurate. When she was able to duplicate her results in the laboratory, Hamburger offered her a research position. Rita accepted and remained there for almost three decades.

Levi-Montalcini and Hamburger were a good match. He recognized that she brought expertise in neurology that he didn’t have, and he supplied experimental embryology expertise. By 1953, Rita’s research had convinced her of the existence of some substance which caused nerve fibers to grow and that without it they would die. She now needed the help of a biochemist, so she began working with Stanley Cohen, a post-doctoral fellow at Washington University.

Stanley Cohen (source)

Stanley Cohen (source)

Once again, Rita had a good working partner in both style and substance. Together she and Cohen isolated Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) first by using mouse tumors, then snake venom, and finally the salivary glands of male mice. They were successful, but ultimately, Hamburger couldn’t justify keeping a full-time biochemist on staff in a zoology department, so in 1959 Cohen moved on to Vanderbilt University, where he was able to isolate Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF). Levi-Montalcini and Cohen shared the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology for their results, discovering NGF and EGF, respectively.

Without Cohen, Rita felt at loose ends. She was also homesick, especially for Paola. In 1961, she received a National Science Foundation grant which allowed her to open the Research Center of Neurobiology in Rome. From 1961 to 1969, she alternated spending six months in Rome with six months in St. Louis. In 1969, with the help of a friend, she was able to open the Laboratory of Cellular Biology which allowed her to return to Italy full time.

Although Rita Levi-Montalcini officially retired from the Laboratory of Cellular Biology in 1979, she continued to guest lecture. She also stayed active in science and politics. In 2001 she was appointed  Senator for Life by the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, and in 2002, she founded the European Brain Research Institute. After a long and very full life, Rita Levi-Montalcini died on December 30, 2012 at the age of 103.

Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Paola Levi-Montalcini“, Jewish Women’s Archive
Rita Levi-Montalcini“, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 23, 2015

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte – Pioneering Physician

Susan La Flesche, early 1900s, Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections (source)
Susan La Flesche, early 1900s, Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections  (source)

In 1889, Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first American Indian woman to receive a medical degree. A number of people helped her achieve this goal, but the primary push came from Picotte’s innate ability and drive. This determination helped her to graduate at the top of her class and then practice in situations where she served as many as 1200 people spread over a large area. She achieved her ultimate dream in 1913, two years before her death, when she opened a hospital on the Omaha Reservation in the Nebraska town of Walthill.

Susan La Flesche was born to Chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his wife One Woman (Mary Gale) on the Omaha Reservation on June 17, 1865. She was the youngest of eight children, five by Mary Gale and three by Joseph’s second wife, Ta-in-ne. The children worked along side their father on the farm, planting, hoeing, and harvesting crops, tending livestock, butchering and preserving meat, among other tasks. They also attended the reservation school run by missionaries.

Joseph LaFlesche (source)

Chief Iron Eyes, Joseph LaFlesche (source)

The focus of the reservation school was to transform the students into “respectable” citizens of the United States. Basically, the intent was to pull them away from their Indian culture, beliefs and traditions, forcing them to conform to the standards of the white settlers. In spite of this, Joseph encouraged his people, including his children, to work hard to achieve an education. Susan attended the reservation school until the age of 14, but as she continued her education her focus was, and would always be, to help her people and to preserve their culture.

Having progressed as far as she could at the mission school, Susan was sent east to complete her education at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey, where her sister Susette had graduated in 1875. She returned to the reservation at the age of 17 and began a 2 year stint as a teacher at the Quaker Mission School. During this time, she often tended the sick and one of those individuals was Alice Fletcher. Fletcher was an ethnographer who had become acquainted with Susette, Susan’s older sister, when she was traveling on the east coast lecturing with Chief Standing Bear and T.H. Tibbles about the living conditions of the Indians.

Mary Gale LaFlesche (source)

One Woman, Mary Gale LaFlesche (source)

Fletcher worked closely with Susan’s half-brother Frank LaFlesche on a two volume history of the Omaha Nation, but she would also be of help to Susan in her quest to become a doctor. After teaching at the mission school, Susan returned east to attend the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia. She graduated at the top of the class and gave a speech at graduation in 1886. Fletcher was there and was once again impressed with the young woman, so she approached Sarah Thomson Kinney, the president of the Connecticut Indian Association about a scholarship for Susan to attend medical school.

Susan received high recommendations from the Hampton professors, including their resident physician, Martha Waldron, who was a graduate of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia.  This is where Susan applied, and once accepted, with a stipend from the Office of Indian Affairs and help from the Connecticut women, she began her official training as a physician. At first, in her letters home, Susan wrote how homesick she was and how much better prepared her classmates were, but the staff and students welcomed her and soon she felt at home. It wasn’t long before she was writing about how much she enjoyed her classes (even dissecting cadavers) and sending them medical advice.

First Female Medical College Building c. 1850 (source)

First Female Medical College Building c. 1850 (source)

Although her studies were challenging, Susan and her classmates took advantage of the culture of the city, going to the theater, opera, museums and lectures. In spite of becoming thoroughly acclimated to city living, her intention was always to return home to help her people. She spent the second summer back on the reservation trying to help fight a measles epidemic, where she encountered another challenge that she would face as a practicing physician. Many in the tribe didn’t trust the white man’s medicine, but attitudes began to change when they saw her take the medicine herself.

On March 14, 1889, Susan again graduated at the top of her class. Her high marks earned her a four month internship at the Women’s Hospital, but by August she was very glad to be back home.

Once Susan returned, she was appointed physician for the agency school, but before long she was taking care of the health of anyone on the reservation. This also included advice on hygiene and cleanliness, but Susan went beyond that. Able to speak the Omaha language and with an understanding of the larger world, she also gave advice on land issues and other legal matters. A typical day meant translating documents, writing letters and reports, taking care of patients in her office, and spending hours visiting her patients in their homes. She rode horseback or drove herself in a buggy, often returning at 10:00 at night and leaving a light in the window so that people could find her.

In addition to serving as the tribe’s physician, Susan was asked to become the medical missionary for the Women’s National Indian Association. She accepted and added the organization of Sunday School, morning and evening Sunday services and Wednesday night prayer meetings to her busy schedule.

In 1894, Susan surprised her friends and family by marrying. Henry Picotte was a handsome, outgoing and well-liked man of the Yankton Sioux. They had two sons, Caryl born in 1895 and Pierre born in 1898. Henry began farming on Susan’s land allotment and in spite of the increased responsibilities of being a wife and mother, Susan continued her work. Their life together wasn’t long. In 1905, Henry died of alcohol related disease. The ready availability of alcohol on the reservation was an issue that was very important to Susan and she took reducing this availability as one of her many causes.

Often Susan had to send seriously ill patients on the train for operations or hospital care. Her dream was to build her own hospital. Finally on January 8, 1913, in Walthill, Nebraska, her dream became a reality when the long awaited facility opened with 17 beds, both wards and private rooms, an operating room and all modern conveniences. After her death it was named the “Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital” and served the Omaha people until after World War II. It now houses a museum and community center.

Dr. Susan FaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital (source)

Dr. Susan FaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital (source)

Throughout Susan’s adult life, she suffered from a degenerative disease which she called neurasthenia. It caused severe pain of her ears, head, and neck. On several occasions she collapsed and spent weeks recovering. Finally, after two surgeries to attempt to remove diseased bone, Susan succumbed to her illness on September 18, 1915.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte was a well-respected physician with both Indian and white patients. She championed legislation and spoke to Congress on behalf of the Omaha and all Native Americans. She organized the Thurston County Medical Society, chaired the health committee of the Nebraska Federation of Women’s Clubs, and was a member of the Nebraska State Medical Society. She made tremendous contributions in the area of public health as well, but she was probably most remembered for her great love and care for her people. After her death Reverend D. E. Jenkins of the Presbyterian Mission board had this to say:

“Dr. Picotte gave herself unselfishly, passionately and often with what amounted to reckless disregard of herself to the task of relieving, helping and uplifting the Omaha Indians. By day and by night she dreamed dreams and saw visions of larger and better things yet to come for her beloved people.”


The Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old West by Chris Enss
Walking in Two Worlds: Mixed-blood Indian Women Seeking Their Path by Nancy M Peterson
U.S. National Library of Medicine: Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)
Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Susan La Flesch Picotte
LaFlesche Family Papers: Biographical Note


Barbara McClintock – Nobel Prize Delayed

Barbara McClintock c. 1983

Barbara McClintock c. 1983

By the 1920s in the United States, many women were going to college. In fact the percentage of women attending universities would decline and not rise to the same level again until the late 1970s. Thirty to forty percent of graduate students in the 1920s were women and 12 to 15 percent of science and engineering PhDs were women, but getting a graduate degree and getting a job were two different things. Most of these women ended up teaching in women’s colleges. Coeducational universities, government, and industry jobs were reserved for men, so for a woman such as Barbara McClintock who wanted to do scientific research the going was difficult.

At the time little was known about genes and their role in heredity. Some scientists didn’t even accept the ideas of Gregor Mendel (remember smooth and wrinkled, green and yellow peas from high school.) By the time McClintock received her PhD in 1927, she had already done ground breaking work in genetics and gathered around her a group of men who wanted to work with her. Most of them already had their degrees, but recognized in her a kind of insight into the cell that others didn’t have. George Beadle once complained to the department chair at Cornell, Rollin A. Emerson, that McClintock interpreted his data more quickly than he did. Emerson responded that he (Beadle) should be glad that someone could explain it. In spite of this recognition, she was an instructor not a professor and would spend years in low paying jobs.

Barbara McClintock was born in 1902, the third daughter of Dr. Thomas Henry McClintock and Sara Handy McClintock. Thomas was a homeopathic physician and Sara had been raised in affluence until she defied her parents to marry Thomas. Barbara’s parents had wanted a boy and her mother seemed to feel that it was somehow her fault that her first three children were girls. This created a distance between her and Barbara that would last a lifetime. Her mother also may have had difficulty understanding a daughter who wasn’t interested in “girly things.” In spite of the fact that the longed for boy was born two years later, Barbara’s father raised her as a boy. She took to it well, loved athletics and nature, and had little patience with the way other girls wanted to play. There must have been early indications of her strong will. When she was four months old, her parents changed her name from Eleanor to Barbara, because Eleanor was too “sweet” a name for their baby girl.


From left to right: Mignon, Tom, Barbara and Marjorie McClintock (source)

Barbara never felt mistreated by her mother, but she wasn’t supported either. The tension between them and the stress of raising four young children prompted her mother to frequently send Barbara to stay with an aunt and uncle. This uncle sold fish from the back of a wagon and Barbara loved to go with him. He taught her to understand mechanical things and to love nature.

Although Sara gave in to Thomas when he indulged Barbara and told a neighbor to mind her own business when she wanted to teach her “womanly” things, she drew the line at letting her daughters pursue higher education. She had talked Barbara’s oldest sister out of accepting a full scholarship to Vassar, believing that too much education would make her less likely to find a husband. When Barbara graduated from high school, her father was serving in the army in Europe and Sara put her foot down. Unable to go to college, Barbara got a job in an employment agency and studied incessantly at the library in the evenings and on weekends. Fortunately, when Thomas returned from the war, he immediately let Barbara enroll at Cornell in the agriculture department where tuition was free.


From left to right: Mignon, Tom, Barbara, Marjorie and Sara at the piano (source)

Barbara thrived at Cornell. She was thoroughly modern, bobbing her hair, smoking cigarettes, wearing pants even when she wasn’t in the field, and even playing banjo with a jazz group. She was small and slender with a big laugh and a good sense of humor. Later Barbara would be seen as something of a loner, but many things and relationships just fell by the wayside because of her intense involvement with her work. She always had a few good friends and good relationships with her family. In spite of pressure from her mother and her steady beau, she made a decision not to marry knowing that she had a dominant personality and a drive to work.

After receiving her degree in 1923, Barbara continued as a graduate. For her research Barbara worked with the maize plant and identified its 10 chromosomes and matched them with visible traits. She created a type of map locating the areas that determined whether or not a plant would have purple, waxy kernels for example. Most of her fellow students and colleagues didn’t understand the massive amounts of data, microscope work, and probability analysis she had done. Fortunately, similar work had been done on the fruit fly by Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University and one of his former students, Marcus Rhoades, came to Cornell as a professor. Rhoades took on the task of explaining Barbara’s work. Both Rhoades and Morgan would be supporters of McClintock throughout her career.

After graduating at Cornell, Barbara stayed on as an instructor for a few years at a level far below her colleagues, in order to continue her research. When she was unable to find a job as a professor, Barbara moved from one research grant to another over the next few years developing a reputation as one of the best in the world in maize genetics, but never being welcomed as a professor. At Cal Tech, she was not allowed in the faculty club and only Linus Pauling welcomed her into his lab. In spite of this, Barbara loved the work and was thrilled to finally be offered a job at the University of Missouri as an assistant professor working with Lewis Stadler in 1936.

Barbara McClintock with George P. Redei in 1978 (source)

Barbara McClintock with George P. Redei in 1978 (source)

The environment at Missouri was very conventional and the culture shock went both ways. Eventually, the administration came to see Barbara as a troublemaker. In 1941, she asked the dean if she would ever be promoted to a permanent position. He told her that if Stadler ever left, she would probably be fired. It was the last straw and Barbara took a “leave of absence” and told him she wouldn’t be back. After so many years of trying to get a job commensurate with her experience and expertise, she gave up. But she still cared about her corn and her research.

In desperation, Barbara contacted Marcus Rhoades and asked where he planted his corn. He told her Cold Spring Harbor, a research center established in 1890 for evolution research. She managed to get an invitation to plant her corn for the summer, then a temporary position, then finally support through the Carnegie Foundation for a permanent position. It was perfect. She could focus solely on her research without worrying about teaching or the politics of the administration.

Although Barbara’s work had already been incorporated into textbooks and would appear in books such as Great Experiments in Biology (Gabriel and Fogel) and Classic Papers in Genetics (ed. James A. Peters), Cold Spring Harbor is where she did the work that finally earned her the Nobel Prize. In 1929, working with a graduate student, Harriet Creighton, they had proved that genes were carried on chromosomes and that the exchange of chromosomal parts created variety in the species. Barbara also had seen evidence that genes could move on a chromosome and between chromosomes, but she needed proof. After six years of research at Cold Spring Harbor, she had her proof. Genes didn’t have to have a fixed position. She also discovered an activator gene, one that could turn another gene on and off, and a gene that could cause the activator gene to move, causing another gene to turn off. Today this is called genetic transposition and the moving gene is sometimes called a “jumping” gene.

McClintock in Mexico in 1959

McClintock in Mexico in 1959

Barbara’s research was unfortunately 15 – 20 year before its time. Many in the scientific community ignored her or thought she was crazy. In the genetics community, no one thought she was crazy, but her research was hard to follow and understand. Many scientists still held to the belief that the structure of chromosomes was stable and fixed. Frustrated she finally quit publishing in 1953. She never quit collecting date and began to see evidence of transposition in other species. Barbara even took a couple of years to go to Latin America to train cytologists and to study indigenous maize varieties and the geographic distribution of specific chromosomes.

Finally in the 1960s and 70s the scientific community began to catch up with McClintock. James Shapiro and others found transposable elements in bacteria and other species. People began flocking to Barbara’s door to learn from her and the awards began to come. Then in 1983, she heard the announcement on the radio that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and that the Nobel committee called her discovery “one of two great discoveries of our time in genetics.” (The other was the discovery of the structure of DNA.) The Prize was unshared and praised throughout the scientific community. The recognition was long awaited.

Barbara continued her work schedule, reading voraciously in many different areas, and continuing her exercise routine. As she approached 90 years old, she even slowed down to an 8-9 hour work day. After finally being recognized for her great contributions, Barbara McClintock died of natural causes at her home on Sept. 2, 1992.

Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science

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.

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.

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American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmark

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