Maria Angela Ardinghelli – Italian Scientist and Translator (1730–1825)

During the time of Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi, there was another learned woman of mathematics and science. Maria Angela Ardinghelli was well-known during her time, although she has been overlooked from a historical perspective, or known simply as a translator of works by Stephen Hales. In fact, she was the only woman whose letters were read at the meetings of the Paris Academy of Sciences on a regular basis. Bertucci describes her as a de facto foreign correspondent of the scientific activities in Italy. She sent them meteorological data, natural history information about Naples, and reports of unusual medical cases.

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Ardinghelli’s family was one of the oldest and most distinguished in Italy, having moved from Florence to Naples when the Medici family came to power. But Nicola, her father, married against his parents’ wishes and was punished accordingly. He was denied his hereditary titles and was restricted to a very modest fortune. Nicola and his wife, Caterina Piccillo, had two children, but Maria Angela’s brother died young, so she was raised an only child. Her father provided her with the best available tutors for her education. She studied mathematics, natural philosophy, English, French and Latin.

In 1734, Naples gained a new king, Charles of Bourbon, and became an autonomous kingdom for the first time in centuries. Charles wanted to revive the university and cultural life of the city. Fernando Spinelli, prince of Tarsia, organized a public library and museum at his palace, and one of Maria Angela’s tutors was curator of the “physics cabinet” and a teacher at the new Academia Spinella. In 1747, to celebrate the opening of the library and birth of the crown prince, Spinelli dedicated a celebration to the king in which guests recited poems. Maria Angela was one of the ladies who spoke, and astonished everyone by composing her poem in Latin.

The Palazzo Tarsia was known for experiments with electricity and its association with Newton. It was also a place where Maria Angela could safely pursue knowledge and display her own talents. There she was seen as the protégé of Della Torre and her other teachers, rather than a woman “experimenting alone with men in the dark.” (I’m not really sure what the distinction is, because she is depicted in at least one image, while engaged in experiments, as the only woman surrounded by men.)

The Spinella Academy was intentionally modeled on the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, and Maria Angela contributed to this association by dedicating her translation of Stephen Hales’s Haemastaticks to the former French ambassador, the marquis De L’Hôpital. However, her translations were much more than literary works; they were annotated texts where she added commentary in footnotes, the dedication and a section titled “To the Reader.” In this way she was able to evaluate the science without exposing herself to ridicule.

In the case of Haemastaticks, she worked with both the English original and the French translation by François Bossier de Sauvages, and even corrected the French translation. She translated De Sauvages’ footnotes, repeated his calculations, and wrote her own footnotes. She also bolstered her own credibility by corresponding with the author to clarify the text. She was careful not to overstep the boundaries of modesty by not presuming to take the same position as De Sauvage, who replicated Hale’s experiments with a view of challenging them, but still made her mastery of the concepts clear with her commentary. When she did report on her own experiments, she framed the discussion as an invitation to explore with her, by following her thought process, as opposed to a challenge to the authority of her male colleagues.

Maria Angela’s efforts were very successful. A positive review by Giovanni Lami in the Florence’s Literary News brought her to the attention of other Italians; Hale was enormously pleased and encouraged her to translate his Vegetable Staticks as well; even De Sauvages was pleased in the end because of the increase in his international reputation. She did translate Vegetable Staticks with the result of increasing her reputation in France as well as Italy.

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Her family was also supportive, and she began to host conversazioni which were well attended by both local academics and visiting foreigners. This is where she met Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French Abbé and physicist. Nollet and the academics at Palazzo Tarsia were both eager to solidify connections between Naples and France, so Della Torre introduced Nollet to Maria Angela.

Nollet was very impressed and spent several evenings at her home attending her conversazioni. They began a correspondence in which they exchanged academic works as well as discussing more personal matters, but he also encouraged his colleagues to correspond with her and to visit when they were in Naples. Their relationship was misunderstood by at least one colleague, partly because people had difficulty believing that a relationship between a man and woman, based on an interest in the physical world,  could be without “suggestive overtones.”

Not only was Maria Angela’s family supportive, but she was devoted to them as well and had no desire to travel herself. She turned down a marriage proposal from a French architect as well as an invitation to become tutor to the princesses at Versailles. But she was happy to be a contact for visiting academics who wanted to experience the natural history of Naples. Over time, she became a mediator between scholars in Paris and Naples and was relied on to circulate papers and information coming from Paris.

In spite of this support, not everyone welcomed women into intellectual circles and at some point Maria Angela began to publish anonymously. Bertucci suggests that it is likely related to the death of her father which occurred sometime before 1765. Without a male protector, she ran the risk of losing her respectability. She didn’t give up scientific work, however she had to be more circumspect about her image.

Maria Angela did marry, sometime after the death of her mother, prior to 1777. Her husband, Carlo Crispo, was a magistrate in Calabria, in the south of the Kingdom of Naples. She continued her correspondence with scholars in Naples and France, and helped Crispo expand his own circle of contacts. She was able to help him advance in his career, eventually moving back to Naples where she helped him with his work and gave up science.

She left Naples during the revolution of 1799, but returned during the Napoleonic era. Over the years she had continued to teach privately and had a respectable income which sustained her during her 24 years as a widow, before her death in 1825.

Note: I couldn’t find an image of Ardinghelli in the public domain. There is a medallion which was sculpted of her that can be viewed here.

Bertucci, Paola, “The In/visible Woman: Mariangela Ardinghelli and the Circulation of Knowledge between Paris and Naples in the Eighteenth Century“, Isis, Vol. 104, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 226-249.
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

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.

The Tragic Life of Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr

Clara Immerwahr (source)

Clara Immerwahr was brilliant . . . with bad taste in men. But Clara’s bad choice translated into a very tragic story.

Clara was the youngest of four children in a comfortable, cultured family. They spent most of the year on the family farm and winters in Breslau with Clara’s grandmother. She and her sisters were tutored privately and attended a girls’ school located in her grandmother’s home.

Although her sisters wanted to marry, Clara bristled at the mention of the “prospective sphere of women’s occupations.” She was interested in natural science and had a desire to be financially independent. When her mother died in 1890, her father turned operation of the farm over to Clara’s sister Elli and her husband and moved with Clara to Breslau. There she attended a teacher’s seminary where the principal recognized her abilities and gave her a copy of Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet. 

After completing her teacher training, Clara worked as a governess, but she still had a desire for more training in science, specifically chemistry. Her father’s university degree was in chemistry and he was delighted to support and help her.

By 1896, women were allowed to attend university lectures at Breslau as visitors, but Clara continued to fight for permission to take the qualifying exam for admittance into the doctoral program. In 1898, she became the first woman to pass the exam. Then on December 12, 1900, she achieved another first when she graduated magna cum laude with a Ph.D. in chemistry, becoming the first woman to receive this degree from a German university.

In spite of her achievement, it was still a boys club. Clara was able to work as an assistant to Richard Abegg, her doctoral advisor, do some research and give lectures to women’s organizations and schools, but she was limited because of her gender.

Around this time, Clara became reacquainted with Fritz Haber. Fritz had proposed to her several years before, but she had turned him down. At the time she was focused on her own studies. When they met again in the spring of 1901, the flame was rekindled and they married in August of that year.

Haber had developed quite a reputation. He was respected for his work in chemistry and had developed a method to convert nitrogen in the atmosphere into compounds that could be used in fertilizer. This method revolutionized agriculture and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber in 1919 (source)

Fritz was a professor at the Technological University in Karlsruhe. He was ambitious and frequently brought home guests unannounced. Clara thought at first that she would be able to continue her research, but the demands of homemaking and soon motherhood proved too much. However, she did collaborate with Fritz on his work and on a textbook about thermodynamics. He dedicated the book to Clara with thanks for “quiet collaboration.”

In spite of this, he had little respect for Clara’s work. As a workaholic, he also had little time for Clara and their son, Hermann. He traveled frequently and had affairs with other women.

Fritz Haber’s star continued to rise and in 1911, he was appointed head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. This honor came with a position as professor at the University of Berlin and membership in the Prussian Academy of Science. In spite of these honors, he may have felt some pressure to prove his patriotism.

Both Fritz and Clara were Jewish and had converted to Christianity in 1893 and 1897, respectively. Antisemitism was prevalent, including a ban preventing Jews from being officers in the army, and even very talented people of Jewish birth came under suspicion.

When the war broke out in 1914, Fritz volunteered his services and soon came up with a horrifying idea. He concentrated his work on poison gas and suggested that chlorine gas could be released to drift over the enemy’s position, disabling them without bombardment.

Clara was appalled and on more than one occasion begged him to stop his research on chemical warfare. She opposed him openly and he accused her in public of treasonous statements. When Clara received her Ph.D., she took an oath to “never in speech or writing to teach anything that is contrary to my beliefs. To pursue truth and to advance the dignity of science to the heights which it deserves.” She believed that Fritz had perverted the ideals of science.

There were also German commanders who thought the use of poisonous gas was “unchivalrous” or “repulsive,” but might be necessary if it meant victory. The first gas attack occurred on April 22, 1915 at Ypres in Belgium. After waiting for the winds to be just right, 168 tons of chlorine gas were released and drifted over the Allied troops, killing over half of them within minutes. A second attack was launched two days later.

Fritz was promoted to captain and returned to Berlin to a party in his honor on May 2, the day before he was to go to the Eastern front to oversee similar attacks. Early in the morning after the party, Clara took her husband’s revolver into the garden and shot herself. Her son heard the shot and she died in his arms. The next day Fritz went to the Russian front leaving 13-year old Hermann to deal with his mother’s suicide alone.

Since the 1970s, Clara’s life has received more attention. She is seen as an example of protest against the misuse of science. The most prestigious award given by the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War is called the Clara Immerwahr award; the University of Dortmund has a mentoring project for women named for her; and Clara is the subject of Tony Harrison’s play Square Rounds. It may have taken a little time, but she hasn’t been forgotten.

Jewish Women’s Archive: Clara Immerwahr
Smithsonian Magazine: Past Imperfect: Fritz Haber’s Experiments in Life and Death

Read about other Women in Mathematics 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.

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

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