2009, Ada Yonath was one of three winners of the Nobel Chemistry
prize. She was the first Israeli woman and the seventh Jewish
woman to win a Nobel prize. This year, I’d like to
tell you about the first American-born Jewish woman who
won a Nobel prize, Rosalyn S. Yalow.
Sussman Yalow was born in 1921 in the South Bronx. Her father
owned his own small business selling cardboard and twine.
Both Simon Yalow and Clara (Zipper) Sussman were immigrants
from Eastern Europe, and urged their children to get the
education that was denied to them.
was an honor student in high school and excelled in math
and science. After graduating from Walton Girls High School
at age 15, she went to Hunter College, where she graduated
Phi Beta Kappa in 1941 with a B.A. in chemistry and physics.
However, when she applied for a graduate fellowship, she
was turned down by every university. She was told that as
a Jew and a woman, she would never get a job as a chemist
Sussman family did not have money for their daughter’s
graduate tuition without financial aid. Rosalyn obtained
a part time position as a secretary to a biochemist at Columbia
University so she could take graduate courses at night.
While she was taking a stenography class in business school
to prepare, she received an offer from the physics graduate
program at University of Illinois, probably due to vacancies
as the result of the draft for World War II. So she tore
up her stenography books and embarked upon her graduate
studies. Her first year was very stressful, because she
had fewer background physics courses than the other graduate
students. She was delighted to receive straight A’s
in three courses and an A- in a laboratory course. The Chairman
of the Physics Department reviewed her record and commented:
“That A- confirms that women do not do well at laboratory
U of I in Urbana, Rosalyn was the only woman among 400 faculty
and teaching assistants and only one of three Jews. One
of the other Jews was Aaron Yalow, the son of an Orthodox
rabbi, whom she married in 1943. The Yalows received their
doctorates in physics together in 1945.
she returned to New York, Rosalyn initially taught physics
at Hunter College. Although she wanted a research job, such
jobs typically were not offered to women. In 1947, the Veterans
Administration hospitals launched a research program to
study radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment
of disease, and Rosalyn was offered laboratory space and
a small salary as a consultant in nuclear physics at the
Bronx VA Hospital. As a physicist, she wanted to collaborate
with a medical doctor in her research, and began a twenty-two
year successful partnership with Solomon Berson, a young
physician at the VA hospital..
major contribution was to use radioisotopes and antibodies
to measure biological and pharmacological substances by
means of a technique called the radioimmunoassay (RIA).
This technique is sensitive enough to measure trace amounts
of materials, including hormones, enzymes, vitamins, and
viruses. Development of assays based on this technique resulted
in an explosion of knowledge in every aspect of medicine,
and these assays were used in thousands of research and
diagnostic medical laboratories throughout the world. However,
despite its huge commercial potential, Yalow and Berson
refused to patent the method.
the 1940’s, it was assumed that a woman would either
have a career or be a housewife; the two rarely were combined.
But Rosalyn decided on both marriage and a career and never
doubted that she could do both. After the birth of each
of two children (Benjamin and Elanna), she was back in her
laboratory a week later, working and nursing her baby. She
came home everyday to give her children lunch and prepare
dinner for the family, sometimes returning to her laboratory
late at night. She kept a Kosher home, invited her lab assistants
to Passover Seders, and worried about them catching colds,
not the typical image for a dedicated, hard-working nuclear
work was recognized throughout the medical field with many
prizes and honorary degrees, and she eventually became chief
of the nuclear medicine service at the Bronx VA hospital.
After Berson died in 1972, Yalow continued her research
alone, receiving many more awards, including the prestigious
Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research in 1976 and
the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1977. She
continued doing research and writing papers (a total of
over five hundred), and was awarded the National Medal of
Science in 1988. Today, Rosalyn Yalow is retired and resides
in the same house in Riverdale, Bronx, NY that she and her
husband first purchased in the 1940s.
she received her Nobel Prize in 1977, Rosalyn Yalow commented
on her opportunities and achievements as a woman:
still live in a world in which a significant fraction of
people, including women, believe that a woman belongs exclusively
in the home; that a woman should not aspire to achieve more
than her male counterparts and particularly not more than
her husband. 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.”