Yalow, Rosalyn (1921—)
Yalow, Rosalyn (1921—)
American medical physicist who was awarded the 1977 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for her development of radioimmunoassay (RIA). Pronunciation: YAH-lo. Born Rosalyn Sussman on July 19, 1921, in the South Bronx, New York; daughter of Simon Sussman (a paper and twine jobber) and Clara (Zipper) Sussman (a piece sewer); Hunter College, A.B., 1941; University of Illinois, M.S., 1942, Ph.D., 1945; married Aaron Yalow, on June 6, 1943 (died 1992); children: Benjamin Yalow (b. 1952); Elanna Yalow (b. 1954).
Was the only female research engineer, Federal Telecommunications Laboratory, International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (1945–46); was a lecturer and assistant professor of physics, Hunter College (1946–50); promoted from part-time consulting physicist to chief of radioisotopic services, Radioimmunoassay Reference Laboratory, and Nuclear Medical Services, and director of the Solomon A. Berson Research Laboratory, Radioisotope Unit, Veterans Administration Hospital, Bronx, New York (1947–91); served as consultant, Lenox Hill Hospital (1956–62); published watershed article about work with insulin antibodies (1956); introduced radioimmunoassay to scientific community (1959); was a research professor, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine(1968–91); elected to National Academy of Sciences (1975); awarded Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research (1976); awarded Nobel Prize (1977); the Rosalyn S. Yalow Research and Development Award established by the American Diabetes Association (1978); elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1979); appointed distinguished professor-at-large, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, New York (1979—); served as chair, Department of Clinical Sciences, Montefiore Hospital and Medical Center, the Bronx (1980–85); awarded National Medal of Science (1988).
(with Solomon A. Berson, Arthur Bauman, Marcus A. Rothschild, and Katharina Newerly) "Insulin-I131 Metabolism in Human Subjects: Demonstration of Insulin Binding Globulin in the Circulation of Insulin Treated Subjects," in Journal of Clinical Investigation (Vol. 35, February 1956, pp. 170–190); (edited with Berson) Peptide Hormones (2 vols., NY: American Elsevier, 1973); (with Rolf Luft and J.P. Accary) Radioimmunoassay: Methodology and Applications in Physiology and in Clinical Studies: Commemorative Issue for Solomon A. Berson (Acton, MA: Publishing Sciences Group, 1974); (ed. by Henry N. Wagner, Jr.) "Radioimmunoassay," in Nuclear Medicine (NY: HP Publishing, 1975, pp. 225–232); Nobel Banquet Speech and Autobiography, Les Prix Nobel 1977 (Stockholm: The Nobel Foundation, 1978); "Radioimmunoassay: A Probe for the Fine Structure of Biologic Systems," in Science (Vol. 200, June 1978, pp. 1236–1245); "A Physicist in Biomedical Investigation," in Physics Today (Vol. 32, October 1979, pp. 25–29); "Presidential Address: Recollections of a Non-Establishmentarian," in Endocrinology (Vol. 106, 1980, pp. 412–414); "Radioactivity in the Service of Man," in Bioscience (Vol. 31, January 1981, pp. 23–28); contributor to The Joys of Research (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1981); contributor to Radioimmunoassay (Stroudsburg, PA: Hutchinson Ross, 1983); contributor to Science, Technology, and Social Progress (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1989); (with Jing-Hua Yu and John Eng) "Isolation and Amino Acid Sequences of Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri sciurea) Insulin and Glucagon," in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Vol. 87, December 1990, pp. 9766–9768); contributor to Women Inventors Honored by the World Intellectual Property Organization (Geneva: F. Moussa, 1991).
"I was not different from my friends. The neighborhood challenge was to see who would be the first to get into the library when it opened so there was nothing special about my family," said Rosalyn Yalow, recalling how life in the close-knit Jewish neighborhood of New York City's South Bronx encouraged a love for learning and books. But there was something special about the young Rosalyn's intellectual gifts and her drive to succeed. Born on July 19, 1921, she was the daughter of a former streetcar conductor, Simon Sussman, whose education had ended at the eighth grade, and who sold paper and twine out of his small neighborhood store. Rosalyn's mother Clara Zipper Sussman had immigrated to the United States as a child and also dropped out of school. To earn money for the family, Clara took in piece-work sewing, and Rosalyn helped by turning collars at home for her uncle's neckwear factory. Yalow taught herself to read and went to Bronx P.S. 10, where she showed a gift for mathematics, skipped grades and finished junior high in two years. When she needed orthodontics work, she worked after school to pay for it.
Growing up amid the families of her parents—serious, hard-working and supportive immigrants from Germany and the Ukraine—Yalow believed she was capable of accomplishing anything if she were willing to work. Like most self-educated people, Simon and Clara Sussman had a reverence for learning and dreams for their children. Even after they lost their savings in the stock-market crash, they insisted that Rosalyn and her older brother, Alexander, prepare for college.
At age eight, Rosalyn had already defined her goals: to marry, have children, and be a "big-deal scientist." At school, she had a take-charge personality which she honed into an attitude "that made it possible for me to go into physics." She also rollerskated and played hopscotch, and went with her father to Yankees games. Encouraged by him in all her interests, she "never really got the message that girls were not as important as boys."
Clara Sussman was a bit more timid. When a teacher suggested that her daughter was a genius, Clara equated the term with Albert Einstein, admitting later, "I never met the man, but I had heard he was a little peculiar." Her initial reaction was, "I don't want a genius. I want a normal child." But her "stubborn, determined" daughter was already fiercely independent. Ignoring her mother's pleas, Rosalyn insisted on studying mathematics and chemistry at the girls-only Walton High School in the Bronx. In 1937, she graduated at age 15, and was accepted at New York's Hunter College, then a tuition-free school for the
city's smartest women; her plan was to be a chemist. But in her sophomore year, she was intrigued by a physics class; she also read the biography written by Éve Curie about her mother, the extraordinary scientist Marie Curie , and identified strongly with Curie's commitment to her work. "In spite of early rejection, she succeeded," Yalow later said. "It was in common with my background, with my being aggressive."
"In the late thirties when I was in college, physics, and in particular nuclear physics, was the most exciting field in the world," said Yalow. "A few people would sit around and talk to each other. One of them would have a great idea, go to the laboratory, and work for days or weeks, and make the discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize. It was an absolutely fantastic time." But the United States was in a deep economic depression, and her parents urged her to study elementary education and become a teacher because "that's what Jewish girls did in those days." While the Sussmans feared Rosalyn's gender would keep her from being accepted in graduate school or receiving financial aid, their self-reliant daughter held onto a belief they had helped instill in her: "A child must learn from the cradle that upward mobility depends upon what people themselves do." Although Hunter did not offer a physics major, she took what classes were available and planned for a career as a research physicist.
Nobody's ever been able to tell me what to do.
In January 1939, as vice-president of Hunter's physics club, Yalow secured a seat at a lecture given at Columbia University by Nobel Prize laureate Enrico Fermi, who described nuclear fission, or the splitting of atomic nuclei to release energy. Inspired to become a nuclear physicist, Rosalyn convinced Hunter College to create a major in physics for her, by accepting credits she earned for evening course work at New York City College. Part of her ambition was also to go to medical school, but she knew she could not afford the tuition, and that anti-Semitism was rampant in the profession at the school level. In her senior year, she began to investigate graduate-school programs in physics, where she might obtain a stipend. Purdue was one of the schools where she encountered discrimination as a Jewish woman, denying her acceptance because of concerns about her "employability."
In January 1941, Rosalyn graduated from Hunter, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. Professor Jerrold Zacharias, considering her unusually talented, secured her a secretarial position with Dr. Rudolph Schoenheimer, a bio-chemist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia. As an employee, she hoped to attend graduate physics courses there tuition-free, while transcribing her employer's scientific work into German, which she knew from her grandmother and her language courses in college. Waiting to be accepted for classes at Columbia, she had signed up for a stenography course when her plans were abruptly changed.
A letter from the University of Illinois informed Yalow that she had been accepted into its graduate physics program, and awarded a $70 monthly stipend and free tuition. Rosalyn headed for the Midwest and the Illinois engineering school, which included the physics department, where she was welcomed by the engineering dean as the first woman admitted there since 1917. Believing at first that this was "an achievement beyond belief," she soon began to realize the underlying political truth: with the Second World War getting under way and male students leaving for the battlefront, many universities were choosing to admit female graduate students rather than shut down their campuses. In the long run, the war was to open many opportunities for women.
Course work at Hunter had not adequately prepared Yalow for the complex studies she soon confronted. In addition to her graduate studies and teaching load, she audited undergraduate classes. As faculty members departed the campus for defense work, and the university hosted increasing numbers of government-sponsored military students, she rarely slept, too overwhelmed by work, while the chair of the department denounced women's abilities in physics and suggested that her admission had been a mistake. On a 400-member faculty, she was the only woman instructor, and in her department she was one of three Jews. She earned straight A's, except for one A-minus in an optics laboratory course which the chair noted as proof that "women do not do well in laboratory work." At Illinois, Rosalyn found her enthusiasm for physics bolstered by the movie Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson , and completed the requirements for a master's degree in physics in 1942.
On her first day at Illinois, Rosalyn had met Aaron Yalow, a rabbi's son from Syracuse, and a fellow physics student. The couple married on June 6, 1943. Three months later, during her oral examinations, Rosalyn defied an attack on her logic by the chair, asserting that her professors at Illinois had taught her the methodology and suggesting that he consult them about any errors. The chair left the room, and Yalow continued to answer other examiners' questions, reasoning, as she said later, "I was right, I knew what I was doing. I wasn't going to be troubled by that guy."
One of Yalow's professors, Maurice Goldhaber, was particularly sympathetic, aware of the university's poor treatment of his wife, the physicist Gertrude Scharff-Goldhaber , who had worked as an unpaid assistant due to the school's nepotism rules. Maurice, who later became director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, approved Yalow's thesis, "Doubly Ionized K-Shell Following Radioactive Decay," and in January 1945, she was awarded her Ph.D. in nuclear physics.
Since Aaron had not completed his dissertation, Yalow returned to New York to see her family before looking for work. Back in the city, she realized that she never wanted to move away again, and she found a job briefly as the only female engineer at the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory for the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. In September 1945, Aaron joined her and worked at the same laboratory, then taught at physics at the New York State Maritime College, where he was to remain for 20 years. Rosalyn lectured in physics at her alma mater, where students who were returning veterans in a pre-engineering program considered her a "spectacular" teacher. Bored by the free summers and still restless to pursue physics research for which Hunter lacked suitable facilities, she began looking for "something useful to occupy my time," even if it meant unpaid work. In the post-World War II era, physicists were seeking to turn nuclear fission to peaceful ends, especially in medicine. In France, Irene Joliot-Curie and Frederic Joliot had created the first radioactive variations of an atom, known as radio-isotopes, for which they won the 1935 Nobel Prize. In the summer of 1947, Aaron Yalow was a part-time medical physics consultant at Montefiore Hospital, when he realized the opportunities for his wife in this emerging field. Rosalyn Yalow soon volunteered to work in the medical physics laboratory of Dr. Edith Quimby .
Quimby introduced Yalow to Dr. Gioacchino Failla, considered the dean of American medical physics. Although Yalow was considered young and lacked post-doctoral training, Failla was impressed enough to recommend her for a position in the Radioisotope Service at the Bronx Veterans' Administration Hospital, where she was to remain for the next 45 years and rise from a part-time consulting position to acting chief. Beginning the job during a December blizzard, she was given as her small office a converted janitor's closet in the hospital wing, which she promptly stuffed full of essential scientific journals, pamphlets and books, establishing one of America's first radioisotope laboratories.
Because such equipment was unavailable for purchase, Yalow used her engineering expertise to design and build radiation detectors. Experimenting with radioisotopes, she sought safe uses for them on humans, especially to replace the dangerous and expensive radium being used to combat cancer. Continuing to lecture at Hunter, she informed students just a few years younger than herself of her research and urged them to pursue biomedical careers. In 1950, she quit teaching to focus solely on her biomedical investigations.
Yalow's son Benjamin was born in 1952 and her daughter Elanna Yalow in 1954. The Yalows bought a brick home in Riverdale, where Rosalyn ate lunch daily with her children, insuring that they followed a kosher diet and the religious traditions she and her husband valued. She took her children to her laboratory, and both received excellent educations at the Bronx High School of Science. Aaron became a successful physics professor at the Cooper Union School of Engineering and Science, and supported his wife's career. Rosalyn also embraced the role of housewife, responsible for the cooking and shopping, and the family vacationed together in American national parks, Europe and Israel.
In the VA hospital, Yalow faced further discrimination. In her office a sign proclaims, "Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not hard." According to Yalow, "I've always been well organized. I've always considered what I wanted, been prepared to work for it…. I had survived the University of Illinois physics department and the ITT research laboratories, and I was confident that I was needed and could do a good job."
She realized that she knew little, however, about human physiology. Yalow began reading textbooks and searched for a partner, to whom she could teach physics while she learned about medicine. The hospital's director, Dr. Bernard Straus, recommended his best internal medicine resident, Dr. Solomon A. Berson, who told Yalow, "Stick with me and I'll have your name up in lights," beginning what was to be a 22-year collaboration and friendship.
Yalow admitted that Berson's personality could often be abrasive and that people "either loved him or hated him." She admired her dominating colleague and deferred to Berson to avoid upsetting him. Trusting each other and working together in what became an almost telepathic relationship, they accomplished great professional work. They developed a hybrid jargon combining physics and medicine for use in the laboratory; she wrote papers and speeches, and Berson edited and rewrote them. In their high-energy sessions, they ran around the laboratory, shouting ideas, and often worked until three or four am, slept several hours, then started again at seven or eight in the morning.
In their first year of work, they investigated the use of radioactive iodine to diagnose and treat thyroid disease, and measured blood volume by using phosphorus or potassium radioisotopes to mark red blood cells. Yalow was greatly influenced by the book by Nobel-winner George Hevesy, Radioactive Indicators: Their Application in Biochemistry, Animal Physiology and Pathology, which describes how radioactive isotopes could be used as tracers to reveal physiological processes.
Working 60 to 100 hours weekly, Yalow undertook a study of peptides. Observing hormones and proteins tagged by radioactive iodine to study how the body produced and destroyed these substances, she focused on insulin, produced in the pancreas to aid the body in processing sugar. Yalow explored the idea that high blood-sugar levels found in adult diabetics resulted from insulin deficiencies and required insulin injections. Spurred by a colleague's suggestion that an enzyme in the liver actually destroyed the insulin, Yalow and Berson investigated.
Injecting themselves and test subjects with radioactively marked animal insulin, the researchers were surprised to discover that adult diabetics kept the insulin in their systems longer than did non-diabetic volunteers. Liver enzymes did not quickly destroy the diabetics' insulin as projected. Non-diabetic schizophrenics who had received insulin shock therapy also processed radioactively tagged insulin slowly. Exploring the meaning of their results, Yalow and Berson concluded that diabetics' immune systems must have produced antibodies in response to their therapeutic injections of animal insulin. The body had a difficult time processing these injected hormones and some diabetics became insulin resistant, a life-threatening situation. To test their assumptions, Yalow and Berson used radioisotopes to track the insulin, and detected the antibodies they had suspected, in such minute concentrations that they never would have been found by conventional methods.
Together they wrote a scholarly paper to inform the scientific community of their discovery, and found the article rejected by several leading periodicals including Science, because most scientists believed that insulin molecules were too small to manufacture antibodies. After adding more documentation and excising the words "insulin antibody" from their title, Berson and Yalow got their article published in the February 1956 Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The discovery went well beyond its application to diabetes. Yalow soon realized that they had developed an important new tool, with the potential for measuring other circulating substances that produced antibodies in the human body. Simply by placing a small sample of the hormone, its antibody, and a radioactive form of the hormone in a test tube, researchers could measure the amount of the natural hormone in the patient's body. The name they gave to this new procedure was radioimmunoassay (RIA), which Yalow and Berson began to publicize. Praising it as sensitive enough to detect a sugar cube dissolved in Lake Erie, they traveled across the U.S., aggressively promoting it and persuading scientists to adopt it.
During the 1960s, as Yalow and Berson fine-tuned their research, RIA methodology radically changed the techniques used in endocrinology and virology. RIA could be used to detect under-active thyroids in newborns in order to correct them and guarantee normal brain development. Other researchers turned to it for the study of infertility and steroid production. Measuring the concentration of enzymes and vitamins in the human body, RIA could diagnose illnesses caused by hormonal excesses and deficiencies, identify peptic ulcers, detect hormone-secreting cancers, insure correct ingestion of dosages, and pinpoint endocrine-related disorders.
By 1970 RIA was embraced internationally as a reliable method, and journals devoted issues to scholarly articles about its use. Endocrinology emerged as an independent field of medical research, as did the new science of neuroendocrinology, the study of the brain's chemical messengers that regulate hormone systems.
Yalow and Berson won numerous awards and were elected to prestigious scientific societies. In 1968, Berson accepted a position as professor in charge of internal medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital but continued to visit Yalow's laboratory periodically until his sudden death in April 1972, of a heart attack. Many scientists, crediting Berson for the intellectual creativity in the team's work, predicted Yalow's career was finished. Shocked and depressed by the loss of her intellectual partner and friend, Yalow considered applying to medical school, believing that she needed this credential to continue her work. Refusing to be intimidated by elite scientists, she decided eventually to christen her radioimmunoassay facility, of which she had become director in 1969, the Solomon A. Berson Research Laboratory, both as a memorial to her colleague and a reminder of who her partner had been. According to Yalow's formula for success, "You go where the power is. You don't isolate yourself. You don't need to be protected. It's part of my aggressive approach to things."
Yalow and Berson did not seek to patent the RIA process. "In my day," Yalow explained, "scientists didn't patent things. You did it for the people." As pharmaceutical companies began to gain billions of dollars from RIA, Yalow remained uninterested in money and refused to act as a voice for them, expected to parrot their rhetoric. Reflecting on her independence, she mused, "I think unhappy people are those who feel that circumstances are forcing them into a pattern. Happy people are not slaves to the system…. Nobody's ever been able to tell me what to do."
Uninterested in financial reward, what Yalow did want was the Nobel Prize. Since the honor had never been awarded to the survivor of a research team, or posthumously, or to a female thought by many to be a secondary partner, her chances were considered slim; even members of the Nobel committee derided her chances. Yalow meanwhile gained a new collaborator, Dr. Eugene Straus, son of Dr. Bernard Straus, whom Berson had groomed as his successor, and produced a prolific 60 papers about new discoveries regarding hormones.
Yalow was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979. Other honors included the American Diabetes Association's Eli Lilly award, and in 1976 she became the first woman to receive the $10,000 Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research, an honor that is often a precursor to the Nobel. That autumn, Yalow hopefully kept champagne on ice and dressed carefully on the expected day of the Nobel announcements; when she did not win, she asked the question, "What do I have to do to win?"
On the morning of October 14, 1977, after a sleepless night, Yalow received the phone call from Stockholm she had desired. At 6:45 am, she learned that she was sharing the Nobel Prize in medicine with Roger C.L. Guillemin of the Salk Institute and Dr. Andrew V. Schally of the Veterans Administration Hospital in New Orleans, who had researched brain hormones. Yalow became the first American-born woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine and the second woman laureate in medicine, following Gerty Cori , who had been honored in 1947.
After attending her daughter's wedding, Yalow flew to Stockholm with her family and three New York City students from her former schools. At the awards ceremony, she heard her work described as a "revolution in the field of hormonal research" that "changed the life of a multitude of researchers." Wearing a blue gown, Yalow credited her mentors, including Dr. Failla, in her acceptance speech, then took her own measure of her achievement: "The first telescope opened the heavens; the first microscope opened the world of the microbes; radioisotopic methodology, as exemplified by RIA, has shown the potential for opening new vistas in science and medicine."
Enjoying her celebrity, Yalow lectured and made public appearances, wearing copies of her Nobel gold medal made into a necklace and earrings. Quoted in newspapers and magazines around the world, she was chosen to narrate a public television series about Marie Curie, awarded numerous honorary degrees and traveled to the Soviet Union, where she taught dissident scientists RIA methods. "Before Nobel," she told Newsweek magazine, "nobody had heard of me. Now I'm much more in the public eye, and I can do things I've never done before."
She declined, meanwhile, to follow the pattern of many other Nobelists in allowing her research productivity to decrease. Seeking new applications for RIA, she pinpointed some hormonal reasons for obesity. Preferring to stay at the VA hospital despite its location in a crime-ridden area of the Bronx, she turned down job offers. During the 1970s, she directed the hospital's nuclear medicine service and served as a consultant and research professor at several other hospitals and schools. A fellow of the New York Academy of Science and the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, she served as president of the Endocrine Society from 1978 to 1979. She also served on numerous editorial and grant review boards. In 1988, she received the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest science award.
In 1991, Yalow retired from the VA hospital at age 70. Since the death of Aaron, on August 8, 1992, her work has concentrated on formulating science policy. Yalow still frequented her laboratory, where she assisted postdoctoral fellows who came from Third World nations to study. A motherly mentor, she attended professional presentations by her former students and followed their careers, and she proudly told of how many of her "professional children" had improved public health in their native lands.
"I think I have a real social responsibility to interact with the community on an educational basis" Yalow said. Concerned about America's future, she supported increased science education, stressing "If we are to have faith that mankind will survive and thrive on the face of the Earth, we must depend on the continued revolutions brought about by science." She also emphasized the need of women scientists for day care in order to pursue advanced education and research. "It's a tragedy for society," she has said, "when talented women do not have children." An outspoken promoter of equal opportunity, she criticized reverse discrimination, and refused the Woman of the Year award of Ladies' Home Journal because she thought men and women should compete on equal terms and not be considered remarkable because of their gender. "I resent there being special awards for women because it suggests that women aren't competitive in the real world," she said.
At the same time, she asserted her motto, "We must believe in ourselves or no one will believe in us." In her Nobel speech she noted, "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." Commenting that women are discouraged from achieving more than men, Yalow concluded, "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…. The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half of its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us."
Meanwhile, because of her research, thousands of medical facilities worldwide are able to utilize inexpensive, quick, and sensitive testing to diagnose and detect crucial biomedical substances in the human body; modern insulin has been genetically engineered to be identical to human insulin, saving many lives. American blood banks have been cleared of hepatitis-infected plasma. In 1978, in honor of her contributions, the American Diabetes Association established the Rosalyn S. Yalow Research and Development Award.
"I can't think of anything in the world that I would want that I haven't had," said Yalow, crediting her success to her assertiveness as well as her intellect, the encouragement of her mentors, and being in the right place at the right time. Asked if she ever felt stifled by the discrimination against her as a Jewish woman, she responded that she never let such behavior control her. "There was something wrong with the discriminators," she asserted, "not something wrong with me."
"Discovery is the most exciting thing in the world," she said. "If I wasn't going to do it one way, I'd manage to do it another way."
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Archival material about American physicists is maintained by the American Institute of Physics, Center for History of Physics, Niels Bohr Library, New York City.
Elizabeth D. Schafer , Ph.D., freelance writer in the history of technology and science, Loachapoka, Alabama