Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

From: United States: New York
Fields: Health and Medicine, Physics
A medical physicist and a Nobel Laureate, Rosalyn Sussman was born July 19, 1921 in Bronx, New York, U.S.A. Although her parents were not schooled past the eight grade, they were well-read and encouraged the education of their children. In 1941, Rosalyn Sussman graduated with honors in physics and chemistry from Hunter College in New York, New York. She desperately wanted to go to medical school, but being Jewish and a woman, she realized she had no chance of being admitted. She felt she had a better chance to go to graduate school and study physics. Purdue University made the following response to her application: "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 assistanceship." No such guarantee was forthcoming and Rosalyn entered secretarial school. Fortunately for her, United States was about to enter World War II and men were diverted into the military. Graduate schools suffered shortage of students so they began accepting women rather than close the schools. Yalow received a teaching assistanceship in physics at the University of Illinois, the most prestigious school she had applied to. She was the first woman accepted by their College of Engineering since World War I. In 1943, she married A. Aaron Yalow, a fellow physics student and in 1945, she received her Ph.D. in nuclear physics.

From 1946 to 1950, she taught physics at Hunter College and in 1947, she also became a consultant in nuclear physics at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx, where they were conducting research on medical applications of radioactive materials. In 1950, she left Hunter College and became an assistant head of the radioisotope service at the hospital. She began a long-lasting partnership with Dr. Solomon A. Berson and together they used radioactive isotopes to investigate physiological systems. They created a new analytic technique called the radioimmunoassay, or the RIA, which allowed quantifying very small amounts of biological substances in body fluids using radioactive-labeled material. They made it possible for doctors to diagnose conditions caused by minute changes in hormone levels.

In 1959 they used RIA to show that adult diabetics did not always suffer insufficiency of insulin in their blood and that some unknown factor must be blocking the action of insulin. They also showed that the injected insulin obtained from animals was being inactivated by the patients' immune systems. RIA was then used by other investigators to screen blood for hepatitis virus in blood banks, to determine effective dosage levels of drugs and antibiotics, to detect foreign substances in the blood, to treat dwarfed children with growth hormones, to test and correct hormone levels in infertile couples, and in many other fields. RIA made endocrinology one of the hottest fields in medical research.

In 1968 Yalow became the acting chief of the radioisotope service at the VA hospital and in 1969 she was named the head of the RIA reference laboratory. From 1970 to 1980, she was the chief of the nuclear medicine service. After Solomon Berson died in 1972, Yalow renamed her laboratory the Solomon A. Berson Research Laboratory and she became its director. The lab published sixty articles between 1972 and 1976 and Yalow received a dozen medical awards. At the same time, she was a research professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine from 1968 to 1974, and a distinguished service professor from 1974 to 1979. In 1975, she was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. In 1976, she became the first woman to be awarded the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research and in 1977, she shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the RIA work. She was the second woman (Gerty T. Cori was the first) to win the Nobel Prize in this category. From 1979 to 1985, Yalow was a professor at large at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and from 1980 to 1985, she was the chairman of the department of clinical science at the Montefiore Hosital and Medical Center in Bronx, New York. In 1988, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest science award. Yalow retired from the VA hospital in 1991. She is using her time and prestige as a Nobel Prize winner to call for more science education, better child care and other causes.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1997.

1. Her Heritage: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Famous American Women, CD ROM, Pilgrim New Media, Inc., 1994 (http://www.PLGRM.com)
2. Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, Carol Publishing Group, 1993


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