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Postal Service goofs on stamp honoring St. Louis Nobelist

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Washington University Bernard Becker Medical Library
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Gerty Cori, courtesy of the

By Julie Bierach, KWMU

SAINT LOUIS, MO – The United States Postal Service has issued a stamp baring the image of Washington University biochemist Gerty Cori; the first American woman to receive a Nobel Prize.

But for people who knew her, the honor is bittersweet. While recognizing Cori's achievements in science, the U.S Postal Service got the science wrong.

Imagine, you've made a discovery that's had a major impact on medicine and you win the Nobel Prize, all the while enduring discrimination in the workplace because of your gender. In the company of three other accomplished male scientists, your achievements are celebrated on a U.S postage stamp. But unlike on their stamps, your achievement, the thing that you're known for, is depicted incorrectly. Although she died in 1957, that's exactly what's happening to Dr. Gerty Cori.

Dr. Carl Frieden is a biochemist at Wash U. where he worked in the same department as Cori.

"I don't think that she would be amused," said Dr. Carl Frieden, a biochemist at Washington University. "And obviously, they didn't want to make this mistake. And it was just something they assumed would be okay to do without checking to see whether it was scientifically correct or not," said Frieden, who worked in the same department as Gerty Cori starting in 1955.

Drs. Carl and Gerty Cori are famous at Washington University. Frieden said for decades, the couple worked side by side.

"They were really a pair. Both Carl and Gerty Cori were involved with issues of glycogen metabolism with metabolic pathways," said Frieden.

The Cori's discoveries have led to an understanding of how cells use food and convert it to energy. Together, in 1947 they were awarded a Nobel Prize for the isolation of the compound glucose-1 phosphate, known as Cori ester.

The new stamp bares Gerty's photograph next to a sketch of the Cori ester. But if you know anything about chemistry, you'll see the formula is wrong.

"Where is the error? In the bond?" asked Dr. Mildred Cohn during a phone conversation.

Dr. Cohn is a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. She published a paper with Gerty Cori in the late 1940's. At the age of 94 Cohn still has detailed memories of their work together.

Until our conversation, Dr. Cohn hadn't seen the stamp or the error.

"Oh I see. I see an error. They put the bond going to the wrong place. Yes I see the error. She would be very upset. I think she would be upset by that," said Dr. Cohn.

But taking a second look, Cohn says it's not that big of a deal. She said Gerty Cori would have been proud to be recognized on an American stamp.

Cori, who was Jewish, came to the U.S from Austria in 1922 when Europe was on the verge of war. She later became a naturalized citizen. Cohn said Cori spent most of her career in the shadow of her husband.

"During her lifetime he got far more recognition that she ever did, which of course, they were really equals as far as the work was concerned," said Cohn. "So in a way, this makes up for the recognition that she didn't get when she was alive."

Cohn knows how difficult it was for women scientists in the 30's and 40's. She said Cori often felt discriminated against. Cori told Cohn that when she and Carl came to Washington University he was given the position as chairman of the pharmacology department, while she was given a job as a research associate at 10% of his salary, despite her qualifications.

"Even at Washington University she wasn't promoted to full professor until a few months before she got the Nobel prize," said Cohn, speaking from her office at the University of Pennsylvania.

Inside the main post office in downtown St. Louis, customers come in to mail letters and purchase stamps. And it's unlikely that any of them will notice the error. The mistake wasn't caught until after the postal service had printed the stamps.

Angela von Bokel, is customer relations coordinator for the City of St. Louis. She said the post office is sorry.

"The post office deeply regrets there is an error on the stamp image, but we still wanted to go ahead and honor four great American scientists," said von Bokel, who works out of the main Post Office downtown.

To correct the formula and reprint the stamp would have been a costly endeavor for the post office. But those who knew her said that while Dr. Cori might have been upset by the error, overall she would have been honored. Dr. Carl Friedan believes there would not be as much attention to the stamp had the post office not made the mistake. And Dr. Cohn thinks that in the end, maybe it's just the thought that counts.

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