Rosalyn Sussman Yalow
Winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Rosalyn Yalow developed the technique of radioimmunoassay (RIA), used to measure antigens in the blood. She died on May 30, 2011 at the age of 89.
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. 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 (Sussman) Yalow was born July 19, 1921, in the South Bronx, a working-class area of New York City. Her father, Simon Sussman, owned his own small business selling cardboard and packing twine. Her mother was Clara (Zipper) Sussman. Both parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and urged Rosalyn and her brother Alexander to get the education that had been denied to them. Moreover, Yalow gives credit to her father for having instilled in her the idea that girls could do anything that boys could do.
An honor student at school, Rosalyn excelled in math and chemistry, and her teachers encouraged her. She graduated from Walton Girls High School at age fifteen and went directly to Hunter College, a free city university for women. As a freshman, she listed her major as chemistry, but when she took her first course in physics, professors recognized her potential as a physicist and guided her into that discipline.
In the 1940s, the standard assumption was that Rosalyn Sussman would be a career woman rather than a housewife. In those years, there was little possibility of combining the two. Rosalyn, however, had her own ideas. 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.
She graduated from Hunter College Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, with a B.A. in chemistry and physics, in 1941. She was the perfect candidate for a graduate fellowship, but she was turned down by one university after another. Only one admissions office was honest enough to admit the real reason: As a Jew and a woman, they believed that she would never get a job in the field.
She was well prepared for these setbacks. In college, she had been warned to take typing and steno courses so she could support herself as a secretary while going to school. It was simply an alternative way to work toward a doctorate. The Sussmans did not have the money required for their daughter’s graduate tuition without some kind of financial aid. If she worked at a university, she would be permitted to take courses gratis. Rosalyn accepted a secretarial job at Columbia University and prepared to take night classes.
At the end of the summer, just before she was scheduled to begin working, she received an offer from the University of Illinois at Urbana. No clear explanation was given for this late acceptance, but it was assumed that places in the graduate program in physics were vacant as a result of the draft for World War II. Even more crucial, Rosalyn Sussman was offered a teaching assistantship and would be able to support herself while studying.
At Urbana, twenty-year-old Rosalyn was the only woman among four hundred faculty and teaching assistants and one of only three Jews. One of the other Jews was Aaron Yalow. Yalow, from upstate New York, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi and had entered the program at the same time as Rosalyn. The two struck up a friendship that developed into a romance. On June 6, 1943, they were married.
The Yalows received their doctorates in physics together in 1945. They returned to the Bronx and both found employment at the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory. When the laboratory closed the following year, Aaron took a position as a researcher in medical physics at Montefiore Hospital and Rosalyn returned to Hunter College where she taught physics. Although she also wanted a research position, such jobs were not routinely offered to women.
It was through her husband’s encouragement and help that she made contact with Bernard Roswit of the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital. In 1947, the Veterans Administration hospitals had launched a research program to explore the use of radioactive substances for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. One of the hospitals chosen for this nuclear medicine project was the Bronx VA Hospital. Roswit was impressed with Rosalyn Yalow’s ability and determination and offered her laboratory space and a small salary as a consultant in nuclear physics. She held that position, together with her faculty position at Hunter, for three years. In 1950, she was appointed physicist and assistant chief of the hospital’s radioisotope service and left her teaching post for full-time research.
Yalow experimented with the safe use of radioisotopes in humans. Radioisotopes were considered an inexpensive substitute for radium and were being used to treat cancer. Yalow wanted to find other uses for them as well, but she needed more medical expertise than a physicist ordinarily had. She began a search for a research partner who had medical experience and found Solomon Berson, a young doctor at the VA hospital. The two began a close and successful partnership that lasted for twenty-two years. People who knew how they worked reported that they sometimes finished each other’s sentences; they even joked about believing in telepathy.
Yalow and Berson started by measuring radioactive iodine in the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disease. They went on from there to the measurement of blood volume and then to measure insulin and other hormones and proteins in adult diabetics. These initial experiments led to the discovery of radioimmunoassay (RIA), an ingenious application of nuclear physics in clinical medicine. RIA makes it possible to use radioactive tracers to measure pharmacological or biological substances with radioisotopes. The system can be used on humans, animals, or plants and is sensitive enough to measure any trace material, even in the most minute amounts. Using this technique, endless varieties of hormones, viruses, and chemicals could be measured.
During those early years of research, Rosalyn and Aaron Yalow had their first child, a son, Benjamin, born in 1952. The young mother was back in her laboratory a week later, together with her baby. She continued her lab work while she nursed the baby, managing it all on very little sleep. When she gave birth to her daughter, Elanna, in 1954, she followed the same procedure. She was conscious of the responsibilities of motherhood and tried hard not to neglect her children. While they were in school, she came home every day to give them lunch and maintained a kosher home in deference to her husband’s wishes. She was home in time to prepare dinner every evening, sometimes returning to her laboratory afterward, working long into the night. In an interview with the New York Post many years later 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.” She routinely maintained a work schedule of sixty to eighty hours per week.
After nine years of careful research, Yalow and Berson publicly presented their discovery. It was first used in 1959, but it took several more years before the scientific community realized its ramifications. Ultimately, RIA created “an explosion of knowledge” in every aspect of medicine and was used in thousands of laboratories in the United States and abroad.
Yalow’s work was recognized throughout the medical field, and she was inundated with prizes, appointments, and honorary degrees. In the mid-1950s, she was already serving as a consultant at Lenox Hill Hospital. In 1961, she was given the American Diabetes Association’s Eli Lilly Award; in 1968 she was named acting chief of the radioisotope service at the Bronx VA Hospital and was also appointed [a] research professor in the department of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a position that she held until 1974. She was a member of the President’s Study Group on Careers for Women from 1966 to1967. In 1969, she was appointed chief of the RIA reference laboratory. In 1970, she became chief of the nuclear medicine service, a position she held until 1986, and, in 1972, was named senior medical investigator of the Veterans Administration. She also became distinguished service professor at Mount Sinai, which had become an affiliate of the Bronx VA Hospital, from 1974 to 1979, after which she taught at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, for six years. Unfortunately, Yalow’s partnership with Berson ended before the two researchers could enjoy the ultimate success for their discovery of RIA. Solomon Berson died of a heart attack in 1972.
After Berson’s death, Yalow continued alone, publishing sixty papers on RIA in an attempt to publicize the discovery and its uses. In 1973, she assumed the directorship of the newly named Solomon A. Berson Research Laboratory. This was the same lab at the VA hospital where she and Berson had made their initial discoveries. At her request, it was now renamed in his memory.
During the 1970s, Yalow earned several more medical awards, including a Commemorative Medallion in 1972, the A. Cressy Morrison Award in Natural Science, the VA Exceptional Service Award, and the Scientific Achievement Award of the American Medical Association, all in 1975. The most prestigious of her awards was the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research, which she won in 1976 at age fifty-five. She was the first woman to receive this prize. The Nobel Prize, the crowning achievement of her career, followed in 1977. She was only the second American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in the fields of physiology or medicine. (The first was Gerty T. Cori in 1947, who shared it with her husband.)
At the Nobel Prize presentation ceremonies in Oslo, Norway, Rosalyn Yalow commented on her achievements as a woman: “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.”
Discussing equality of opportunity, she explained:
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.
Returning to her laboratory at the VA Hospital after she was awarded the prize, she was deluged with calls from well-wishers, friends, and reporters. In an interview for People magazine she was asked what she planned to do with the $74,500 that was her half of the prize money. (The other half went to two male scientists who had done research on the hypothalmic area of the brain.) She replied that she had simply put it in the bank. “I can’t think of anything I want,” she said. “I wasn’t handed college or graduate school or anything else on a silver platter. I had to work very hard, but I did it because I wanted to. That’s the real key to happiness.” (Some colleagues felt that Yalow should have shared the prize money with the family of Solomon Berson, and they see this as a major moral lapse.)
After the excitement and publicity of the Nobel Prize, the tireless Yalow continued to work in her modest laboratory in the Bronx and remained in her home in nearby Riverdale, New York. She also served as chair of the department of clinical science at Bronx’s Montefiore Hospital and Medical Center from 1980 to 1985. She collected a growing number of honorary degrees, including those from Yeshiva University—where she has held the title of Distinguished Professor-at-Large emerita since 1986—and Hunter College, her alma mater. In 1978, the Rosalyn S. Yalow Research Development Award was established. For the second time, she was given the VA Exceptional Service Award, then the Torch of Learning award by the American Friends of the Hebrew University. She even found time to host a five-part dramatic series for Public Broadcasting on the life of Marie Curie, one of Yalow’s own early role models. Through it all, she refused to allow fame to change her life-style.
Yalow continued writing papers (a total of over five hundred as of 1996) and doing research. In 1988, she was awarded the National Medal of Science. Rosalyn Yalow, proud of her accomplishments, never regretted not patenting RIA. Had she done so, she would have been a rich woman. However, she claims to have always felt uncomfortable having “more money than I can spend usefully.” As she told a New York Post reporter, “I have my marriage, two wonderful children. I have a laboratory that is an absolute joy. I have energy. I have health. As long as there is anything to be done, I am never tired.”
This article originally appeared in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.