Forgotten Female Scientist: Rosalyn Yalow

By: Naomi Fried  |  April 5, 2022

By Naomi Fried 

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow once said, “[p]erhaps the earliest memories I have are of being a stubborn, determined child. Through the years, my mother has told me that it was fortunate that I chose to do acceptable things, for if I had chosen otherwise, no one could have deflected me from my path.” Yalow, a 19th-century Jewish woman, achieved what was unimaginable for even the ordinary white Christian American male during her time. 

Born in the Bronx, New York, in July 1921, Yalow was raised in a Jewish household. Despite the influence of societally imposed gender roles, her father instilled in her that women could do anything that men could do. In high school, Yalow discovered her interest in the sciences. She was interested in chemistry, but her interest shifted to physics when she attended the all-female, tuition-free Hunter College. While there, Yalow contemplated continuing to study physics. She wrote in her autobiography: “I was excited about achieving a career in physics. My family being more practical thought the most desirable position for me would be as an elementary school teacher.” Additionally, it seemed unlikely that good graduate schools would accept and offer financial support for a woman in a field like physics that was so male-dominated. Although Yalow was hesitant to pursue her dreams, she decided to continue her studies because her “physics professor encouraged [her], and [she] persisted.”

At Hunter College, Yalow had to work twice as hard to prove that she was worthy of being a physicist because she was a woman. One of the professors who overlooked her gender and realized her potential obtained a part-time position for her as a secretary to a leading biochemist at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. This position offered her an insight into the world of biochemistry, and she was fascinated by it. Not believing that she would be able to obtain a good job in her field as a woman, she took another position as a secretary for Michael Heidelberger at Columbia, who hired her under the condition that she would study stenography. After graduating from Hunter College in 1943, Yalow received an offer to become a physics teaching assistant at the University of Illinois. She was thrilled about this job offer and was excited to get back into the field of physics. Yalow even “tore up all [her] stenography books, stayed on as a secretary until June and during the summer took two tuition-free physics courses.” At the University of Illinois, she discovered that she was one of the only three Jews and the only woman among its 400 faculty members. Moreover, she was the first woman in over 20 years. She received this job offer mostly because World War Two had just begun, and many men had gone off to fight. As a result, the University opted to offer women education and jobs to avoid being shut down. At the University of Illinois, Yalow started her graduate studies, where she met her future husband, Aaron Yalow, on the first day of class. 

Yalow recalls that despite the busy time she had and the challenging transition she was going through, she was delighted to receive straight A’s in both of her courses. She received an A in lecture and an A- in her lab. After seeing this A- in her record, the physics department chairman said to her, “that A- confirms that women don’t do well at laboratory work.” Yalow decided to take this criticism as a motivator to continue working hard and to prove him wrong.

After graduating with her Ph.D., Yalow took her first job as an assistant electrical engineer at the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory in New York. Once again, she was the only female employee. After a few jobs in engineering, Yalow decided to devote her career to full-time research. In 1950, Yalow began working with a physician named Solomon Berson. Together, they discovered new ways to use radioactive isotopes to measure blood, study iodine metabolism, and diagnose thyroid diseases. Later, Yalow started focusing on insulin, which was the most available hormone to which she could apply the technique she had developed. This research would later lead her to develop the method that won her a Nobel prize. In 1977, Yalow was the co-winner of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for the development of this technique she had been working on with Solomon Berson, which they called the Radioimmunoassay Technique. She was the second woman in history to receive a Nobel prize.

Yalow faced a lot of criticism from fellow women at work, but she never quit and continued to invest in the women that she believed had the potential to become scientists. Eugene Straus, the author of Rosalyn Yalow: Her Life and Work in Medicine, reported that Yalow was bothered that “there [were] no organizations for women in science.” At the Nobel prize presentation ceremonies in Oslo, Norway, Yalow emphasized her achievements as a woman. She highlighted that unfortunately, many, including women, believe that a woman belongs exclusively in the home and should not aspire to achieve more than her male counterparts. 

After receiving the Nobel Prize and the prize money associated with it, she was asked what she would do with the money. Yalow was stumped and couldn’t think of anything to answer the question. Yalow worked hard for everything she had all her life, and she wasn’t used to receiving anything on a silver platter; Rosalyn firmly believed that hard work was the real key to happiness Rosalyn was an inspiration to many young women and demonstrated that if women believe in themselves and they have a goal in mind when working hard, they can achieve anything.

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