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Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow becomes first American-born woman to receive Nobel Prize in science

December 8, 1977
Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow
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Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow was the first woman born and educated in the United States to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field. Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

On December 8, 1977, Rosalyn Yalow became the first American-born and American-trained woman to receive a Nobel Prize in science when she accepted the Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work in the development of radioimmunoassay, a technique that allows scientists to measure minute amounts of hormones and other substances in human blood.

Born in 1921 and raised in the Bronx, Yalow planned to become a teacher until, at 17, she read a biography of Marie Curie and found her role model. Yalow studied physics at Hunter College, then took a position as a secretary at Columbia University’s medical school. No graduate school would admit her to a physics program, because faculty felt that there would never be job opportunities for a Jewish woman physicist. She hoped to use her staff position to take classes at Columbia and work toward a degree that way. However, in 1941, the University of Illinois relented and admitted her. She was the only woman and one of only three Jews, among 400 faculty and teaching assistants. Later, she married one of those Jews, Aaron Yalow.

Moving back to New York after graduate school, Yalow took a position at the Bronx V.A. Hospital, where she remained for over 30 years. Following her interest in nuclear medicine, she joined forces early on with physician Sol Berson; their research partnership lasted 22 years, until Berson’s death in 1972. Together, they discovered a way of measuring insulin in human blood. Along the way, they disproved some major tenets of medicine, including the idea that molecules like insulin were too small to produce antibodies. The technique of radioimmunoassay that they developed soon became a widespread tool for measuring all kinds of hormones and diagnosing many conditions that had previously been difficult to test for or treat.

After Berson’s death, Yalow continued her work, publishing hundreds of papers and giving lectures around the country and the world. In 1976, she became the first woman ever to win the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. The following year, she won the Nobel Prize. Though Yalow made a point of saying that she was not “a feminist in the ordinary sense,” and that she had kept a kosher home for her husband and raised two children, she also spoke out for women in science. At the Nobel awards dinner in Stockholm, she told attendees that “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...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 afterward.” For a woman who had been told she would never find a job in physics, Yalow had gone a long way toward opening up that path. Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow died on May 30, 2011 at the age of 89.

To learn more about Rosalyn Yalow, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and We Remember.

See also: Remembering Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow, Nobel Prize winning scientist and mother and Jewish women and the Nobel prize, Jewesses with Attitude; Hunter College; Rosalyn S. Yalow in the Virtual Archive.

Sources: New York Times, November 29, 1977, December 22, 1977, April 9, 1978; Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1517-1520.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow becomes first American-born woman to receive Nobel Prize in science." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/08/1977/rosalyn-s-yalow>.