Rosalyn S. Yalow
In 2009, Ada Yonath was one of three winners of the Nobel Chemistry prize. She was the first Israeli woman and the seventh Jewish woman to win a Nobel prize. This year, I’d like to tell you about the first American-born Jewish woman who won a Nobel prize, Rosalyn S. Yalow.
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was born in 1921 in the South Bronx. Her father owned his own small business selling cardboard and twine. Both Simon Yalow and Clara (Zipper) Sussman were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and urged their children to get the education that was denied to them.
Rosalyn was an honor student in high school and excelled in math and science. After graduating from Walton Girls High School at age 15, she went to Hunter College, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1941 with a B.A. in chemistry and physics. However, when she applied for a graduate fellowship, she was turned down by every university. She was told that as a Jew and a woman, she would never get a job as a chemist or physicist.
The Sussman family did not have money for their daughter’s graduate tuition without financial aid. Rosalyn obtained a part time position as a secretary to a biochemist at Columbia University so she could take graduate courses at night. While she was taking a stenography class in business school to prepare, she received an offer from the physics graduate program at University of Illinois, probably due to vacancies as the result of the draft for World War II. So she tore up her stenography books and embarked upon her graduate studies. Her first year was very stressful, because she had fewer background physics courses than the other graduate students. She was delighted to receive straight A’s in three courses and an A- in a laboratory course. The Chairman of the Physics Department reviewed her record and commented: “That A- confirms that women do not do well at laboratory work!”
At U of I in Urbana, Rosalyn was the only woman among 400 faculty and teaching assistants and only one of three Jews. One of the other Jews was Aaron Yalow, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, whom she married in 1943. The Yalows received their doctorates in physics together in 1945.
When she returned to New York, Rosalyn initially taught physics at Hunter College. Although she wanted a research job, such jobs typically were not offered to women. In 1947, the Veterans Administration hospitals launched a research program to study radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, and Rosalyn was offered laboratory space and a small salary as a consultant in nuclear physics at the Bronx VA Hospital. As a physicist, she wanted to collaborate with a medical doctor in her research, and began a twenty-two year successful partnership with Solomon Berson, a young physician at the VA hospital.
Yalow’s major contribution was to use radioisotopes and antibodies to measure biological and pharmacological substances by means of a technique called the radioimmunoassay (RIA). This technique is sensitive enough to measure trace amounts of materials, including hormones, enzymes, vitamins, and viruses. Development of assays based on this technique resulted in an explosion of knowledge in every aspect of medicine, and these assays were used in thousands of research and diagnostic medical laboratories throughout the world. However, despite its huge commercial potential, Yalow and Berson refused to patent the method.
In the 1940’s, it was assumed that a woman would either have a career or be a housewife; the two rarely were combined. But Rosalyn decided on both marriage and a career and never doubted that she could do both. After the birth of each of two children (Benjamin and Elanna), she was back in her laboratory a week later, working and nursing her baby. She came home everyday to give her children lunch and prepare dinner for the family, sometimes returning to her laboratory late at night. She kept a Kosher home, invited her lab assistants to Passover Seders, and worried about them catching colds, not the typical image for a dedicated, hard-working nuclear physicist!
Yalow’s work was recognized throughout the medical field with many prizes and honorary degrees, and she eventually became chief of the nuclear medicine service at the Bronx VA hospital. After Berson died in 1972, Yalow continued her research alone, receiving many more awards, including the prestigious Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research in 1976 and the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1977. She continued doing research and writing papers (a total of over five hundred), and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1988. Today, Rosalyn Yalow is retired and resides in the same house in Riverdale, Bronx, NY that she and her husband first purchased in the 1940s.
When she received her Nobel Prize in 1977, Rosalyn Yalow commented on her opportunities and achievements as a woman:
“We still live in a world in which a significant fraction of people, including women, believe that a woman belongs exclusively in the home; that a woman should not aspire to achieve more than her male counterparts and particularly not more than her husband. We must believe in ourselves or no one else will believe in us; we must match our aspirations with the competence, courage, and determination to succeed, and we must feel a personal responsibility to ease the path for those who come after us. The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half its people if we are to solve the many problems that beset us.”
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