On October 13, 1977, when the Nobel Committee, in Stockholm, announced the joint winners of that year’s prize for Physiology or Medicine, the list included the Jewish-American physicist Rosalyn Yalow.
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Yalow, the daughter of immigrants, had, through a combination of intellectual brilliance and personal drive, defied the odds to reach the top of her field in medical research. When she finished college magna cum laude, graduate schools in science were not interested in accepting women, if only because it was unlikely that they would be able to find employment after finishing their degrees.
Not only did Yalow get her doctorate and a job, she also married, was fully involved in raising two children, and she led a traditional Jewish life. Yalow "did it all" long before this was a highly valued path for women in American society.
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Rosalyn Sussman was born in the Bronx, New York, on July 19, 1921. Her father, Simon Sussman, a native of the Lower East Side, owned a business that sold packing materials wholesale. Her mother, the former Clara Zipper, was German-born, and had come with her family to the U.S. at age four. Neither had completed high school.
Rosalyn showed great talent in mathematics from early childhood, and decided when she was eight that she would become a scientist.
She attended Walton High School, a public school in the Bronx, from which, a few years earlier, Gertrude Elion, a 1988 winner of the medical Nobel Prize, had graduated.
When Yalow entered Hunter College, it was as a chemistry student. By the time she graduated, in 1941, she had switched to physics, and it was in that field that she applied to graduate schools.
For a while, it seemed the only way she would be accepted would be if she took a secretarial job at a university, which would then make her eligible to take classes in her field. Once the U.S. entered World War II, however, women were more welcome in academia, even in the fields of science, and Yalow was offered a place at the University of Illinois college of engineering, in Champaign-Urbana.
During her first year there, Yalow was the only woman among 400 faculty and teaching fellows. One of the 399 men was Aaron Yalow, a rabbi’s son who was also studying physics. They met on the first day of classes, became a couple, and married in 1943, two years before completing their doctorates and returning to New York.
How to track hormones
Rosalyn Yalow taught physics for several years at Hunter, her alma mater, before she began working in 1947 at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital. Her assignment was to set up a radioisotope (nuclear medicine) service.
In 1950, Yalow began working with Solomon Berson, a physician and biochemist, on the work that, 27 years later, would win her the Nobel Prize. Their research was in the field of radioimmunoassay, by which means biological molecules are tracked using radioactive markers. Yalow and Berson developed a method of using these markers to measure, with great accuracy, infinitesimally small quantities of peptide hormones – in this case, insulin – in the blood. Later their method would be applied to hundreds of other substances.
The radical part of their research, one that their colleagues in the field were reluctant to accept for a decade, concluded that sufferers of type II – adult-onset – diabetes were unable to process insulin, not because they lacked the hormone, but because their bodies produced an antibody that rejected it. This discovery was the beginning of a new understanding of the dynamics of diabetes and other endocrinological disorders.
Yalow shared the Nobel with Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally, two researchers who, separately, had studied the activity of hormones in the brain. Her research partner, Berson, had died in 1972, at age of 53, and so was not eligible for the prize. Yalow renamed her laboratory for him, and continued their research at a frantic pace, before winning the Nobel, in 1977.
When Yalow gave up her laboratory work, in 1987, she held professorships at both the Mt. Sinai and Albert Einstein schools of medicine. She then devoted part of her time to encouraging women to enter science.
Rosalyn Yalow died on May 30, 2011, at the age of 89.