Remembering Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow, Nobel Prize winning scientist and mother
“A Jewish woman whose father-in-law is a rabbi, who keeps a kosher home, who invites her lab assistants to Passover seders, and worries about them catching colds is not the typical image of a Nobel Prize winner,” Emily Taitz writes in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. “But it is the image of Rosalyn Yalow, the first woman born and educated in the United States to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field.” Rosalyn S. Yalow passed away Monday, May 30, 2011, at the age of 89.
Born July 19, 1921, in a working-class South Bronx neighborhood, Rosalyn Yalow excelled in math and chemistry. Her parents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, wanted her to have the education that had been denied them. Yalow credited her success partly to her father’s belief that girls could do anything boys could. She graduated from Walton Girls High School at 15 and went directly to Hunter College, a free city university for women where she studied chemistry and physics. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, in 1941.
At this point, no graduate program would accept her. One admissions officer explained the real reason why: “She is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman.” But this was not enough to stop her. Yalow got a secretarial job at Columbia University so that she could take night classes. Luckily, she was offered a spot at the University of Illinois at Urbana, probably because of vacancies related to the World War II draft. There were two other Jews in her program, one of whom -- Aaron Yalow, the son of an Orthodox rabbi -- she married. They received their doctorate degrees in Physics together in 1945 and returned to the Bronx.
Rosalyn Yalow eventually became a full-time medical researcher at the Bronx VA Hospital, where she and Solomon Berson co-discovered the radioimmunoassay (RIA), which uses radioactive tracers to measure pharmacological or biological substances with radioisotopes. Put another way, RIA enabled scientists to measure insulin and other hormones in the blood, revolutionizing the field of endocrinology, specifically related to diabetes research and hormonal problems related to growth, thyroid function and fertility.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Rosalyn Yalow did this formative research balancing babies on her hips. Emily Taitz writes, “Even before her high school graduation, she had decided on both marriage and a career and never doubted her ability to achieve those two goals.” A week after having her first child, Benjamin, in 1952, Rosalyn went back to the lab and brought the baby with her. Somehow she managed to nurse and care for the baby and work at the same time. She did the same thing when her daughter, Elanna, was born in 1954. When they were older, Rosalyn managed to go home everyday to make them lunch, maintain a kosher kitchen, and be home in time to make dinner before returning to the lab at night. Remarkably, she managed her wifely duties while working 60-80 hours per week. In an interview with the New York Post she said, “It’s true that women are different from men. If you want to be a good wife, you have to work a little harder.”
Solomon Berson died of a heart attack in 1972. In 1977, Rosalyn Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize for their work, becoming the second Jewish woman to receive a Nobel Prize (the first was Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori who became an American citizen in 1928 and received the Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1947) and the first American-born Jewish woman to receive a Nobel Prize. At the Nobel Prize presentation ceremonies in Oslo, Norway, Rosalyn Yalow said:
“We still live in a world in which a significant fraction of people, including women, believe that a woman belongs and wants to belong 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 cannot expect in the immediate future that all women who will seek it will achieve [it]. But if women are to start moving toward that goal, 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.”
Today, as women continue to push their way into the sciences and struggle with work-life balance, Rosalyn Yalow’s story resonates deeply, leaving a legacy that will inspire us for generations to come.