Two weeks ago we learned about the five extraordinary women who have won Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry. There are no fewer than ten women who have been awarded for their contributions in Physiology or Medicine, so this week we’ll take a look at the first five.
Gerty Cori (1896-1957) and her husband, Carl Cori, split the 1947 Nobel Prize with Bernardo Houssay for their similar works on the metabolization of sugar in the human body. Gerty Cori received her Doctorate in Medicine from the German University of Prauge in 1920; then emigrated to America with her husband two years later. They first worked in Buffalo at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases, and moved to St. Louis in 1931 to work at the Washington University Medical School. Carl was a professor of Pharmacology and later Biochemistry, while Gerty served as a research assistant until she was finally made a professor of Biochemistry in 1947. Together, they studied how insulin and epinephrine affect sugar in the body, and eventually were able to synthesize glycogen and starch in the laboratory. They also studied the pituitary gland and how hormones affect blood sugar.
In 1977, Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011) was awarded one half of that year’s Nobel Prize for her work on peptide hormones; with the other half going to Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Schally for their related work on the same hormones. After becoming interested in physics while at the then all-woman Hunter College in New York City, she was accepted to the graduate program at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1941. There she was the only woman out of 400 students in the College of Engineering (and the first woman accepted since 1917). She became skilled in the measurement of radioactive substances, and after returning to New York City to teach physics at Hunter, she was also hired to help establish the Radioisotope Service at the Bronx Veterans Association Hospital. With no background in medicine, Yalow and her colleague Dr. Solomon A. Berson pioneered the use of radioactive isotopes to measure minute quantities of hormones in the bloodstream. The process, known as radioimmunoassay, aids immensely in the diagnosis and treatment of hormone deficiency diseases. Sadly, Berson did not survive to share the Nobel; the prize is not awarded posthumously.
Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery of how genes regulate heritable characteristics; the only woman to win an unshared Nobel in Physiology or Medicine. She first became interested in the then-recently discovered field of genetics as an undergrad at Cornell in 1921, and continued her studies there to earn her MA and PhD in botany. She was able to complete a genetic map of maize, determining which genes on its ten chromosomes contributed to different physical characteristics. She also proved that genes can swap places during meiosis, an action that had only been previously hypothesized. In 1928, while a researcher at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she discovered controlling elements separate from genes that were able to change places on the chromosome and affect how genes were expressed. This discovery was so controversial that she stopped publishing due to backlash, but it was later corroborated and led to her Nobel recognition.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (born 1909) and Stanley Cohen were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for their joint discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). Her father initially discouraged her from pursuing an education or career, but he later relented and she earned her degree in Medicine and Surgery in 1936 from the medical school in her hometown of Turin, Italy. She then enrolled in the specialty program for the study of neurology and psychiatry, but was forced to withdraw when Mussolini banned all non-Aryan Italian citizens from academic and professional careers (she is Jewish). She and her family were forced to move several times during World War II, but at each location she set up a private lab to continue the work on chick embryos she had started in school. After the war she went to work at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and there collaborated with Viktor Hamburger and Stanley Cohen to discover nerve growth factor, a protein that is important to maintain healthy nerve cells. In 2001, Levi-Montalcini was appointed Senator for Life in Italy, and is still politically active at age 102. She is the oldest living Nobel Laureate.
Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999), George H. Hitchings, and Sir James W. Black were recognized in 1988 for their contributions to pharmaceutical treatments of diseases. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Elion was able to attend the free women’s-only Hunter College starting in 1933, and majored in chemistry hoping to find a cure for the cancer that had killed her beloved grandfather. She went on to earn her MS in chemistry from New York University in 1941 and started a PhD program at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, but later dropped out rather than give up her research position as an assistant to George H. Hitchings at Burroughs-Wellcome Pharmaceuticals. Together, they used the biochemical differences between healthy cells and pathogens to develop drugs that would destroy the disease causing agents but leave the host cells undamaged. Among her developments were the first treatment for leukemia, an immuno-suppresant used in organ transplants, and drugs to treat viral herpes, gout, malaria, and several bacterial infections. Her research methods also led others to the eventual invention of AZT.
I highly recommend reading the full autobiographical essays linked above. They contain fascinating looks at the struggles of women in science in years past and how these brilliant scientists overcame societal and structural pressures that tried to keep them from reaching their full potentials.