Rosalyn Yalow: fearless pioneer of modern medical physics

Today, 14 June, marks World Blood Donor Day, an event designed to raise awareness on the importance of blood donation and to celebrate the contribution of voluntary donors to saving lives all over the world. As part of this celebration, DiscovHER brings you the story of Rosalyn Yalow, a medical physicist and Nobel laureate whose research revolutionized endocrinology, and contributed to the safe blood transfusions that we have today. Alongside long-time collaborator, Solomon Berson, Yalow developed a radioisotope tracing technique known as radioimmunoassay (RIA) that allowed the measurement of small quantities of various biological substances in human blood and other aqueous substances, enabling the testing of innumerable medical conditions. Her story is one of perseverance, success, and the importance of mentorship of women in STEM fields.

Rosalyn Yalow (née Sussman) once stated that she knew she wanted to be a scientist since she was eight years old. Little did she know that her dream would be equal parts frustration and reward, and that she need a lot of work, and a little bit of luck, to achieve what she dreamed of.

Originally leaning towards chemistry in high school, her interest in physics developed after she read Eva Curie’s biography of her two-time Nobel laureate mother, Marie Curie. The novelty of certain fields such as nuclear physics fascinated her, especially because of the large number of Nobel prizes being awarded to researchers in these segments. She graduated from Hunter College with high honors in Physics at the tender age of 19. In spite of this, her path into academia still proved difficult.

She applied for graduate programs for physics at various universities, to no avail. Baffled by these countless rejections, the question was eventually answered in her rejection letter from Purdue University, sent to her professor. It stated: “she is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman. If you can guarantee her a job afterward, we’ll give her an assistantship.” Given the impossibility of such a guarantee, she opted to work as a secretary at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, part of Columbia University, in the hope of getting admission there. With the onset of WWII however, she was awarded a teaching assistantship at the University of Illinois, where she was the only woman in an academic setting comprised of 400 faculty and students. It goes almost without saying that she was held to higher standards than her male peers, and that any failure on her part was used as an argument against women working in science.

She nonetheless earned her doctorate in 1945 and, having been exposed to the field of radiotherapy in the interim, became a fulltime researcher at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital in 1950, the year in which she also began her collaboration with Berson, which lasted in 22 years. Their early work was met with a lot of resistance and criticism, as it upended the contemporary understanding of the human immune system. A key element of their research, antibodies, even had to be taken out of a paper they had authored for it to be published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Yalow remembered this incident throughout her life and even exhibited their rejection letter in her Nobel lecture.

Her work, though initially focused on tracing insulin antibodies, eventually extended to other substances such as vitamins and viruses, enabling doctors to carry out effective blood tests, and resulting in safer transfusions. Though her method has been rendered largely obsolete due to the development of technology that doesn’t involve radioactivity, her hard work and perseverance led to major improvements in healthcare. It is hard to believe that we would have missed out on all of it had she given up on her aspirations! What’s more, over the course of her career, she inspired many women to work in physics, including Mildred Dresselhaus, who became known as the queen of carbon science thanks to her important contribution to this field.

Does Rosalyn Yalow’s story inspire you? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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