Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921-2011)

Ruth H. Howes

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, a physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1977, died on May 30, 2011, at the age of 89 [1]. Dr. Yalow played leadership roles in three areas of importance to readers of Physics and Society. First, she used her training in physics to develop radioimmunoassay as a technique in endocrinology, the work for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize. Second, she felt an obligation to use the publicity attending her receipt of the Nobel Prize to speak out in support of biomedical research and education as well as on other technical issues that impact society where she had specialized knowledge. Finally, Yalow was an important role model for young women interested in the study of physics, and interacted with women scientists both as a mentor and a mentee.

Yalow was born in New York City to parents who themselves had never finished high school but were determined that their son and daughter would receive a college education. Yalow was educated in the New York Public Schools where she developed a passionate interest in mathematics and chemistry, which switched to physics at Hunter College. She graduated magna cum laude as the college's first physics major at the age of 19 in January, 1941. After a very brief stint in business school, she was offered at teaching assistantship at the University of Illinois where she received her masters in physics and her Ph.D. in nuclear physics in January, 1945.

Rosalyn Sussman met Aaron Yalow when they both started graduate work in physics at Illinois. They married in 1943. After receiving her PhD, she returned to New York without her husband, whose dissertation was delayed. She joined the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory as an assistant engineer - the only woman engineer on the staff. Aaron followed her to New York and became part of the new field of biophysics using radioisotopes in medicine. In 1946, Rosalyn's group from the Telecommunications Lab left New York and she moved to Hunter College to teach physics to returning veterans. She taught full-time at Hunter, and, in 1947, because she held a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, she was hired part-time by the Veterans Administration to establish Radioisotope Services at its Bronx Hospital. She held both the teaching and VA jobs before joining the VA full time in 1950, by which time she had equipped a janitor's closet as a functioning lab and published 8 clinical papers with Dr. Bernard Roswit and other physicians. In July, 1950, she started work with another physician, Dr. Solomon Berson, with whom she collaborated until his death in 1972 [2].

Berson was an expert on diabetes. He and Yalow were interested in measuring how fast the body used insulin, thereby removing it from the blood. To do so it was necessary to accurately measure concentrations of insulin in human blood. Berson and Yalow developed the technique known as radioimmunoassay (RIA), which takes advantage of the fact that an antigen labeled with a radioactive isotope such as iodine-131 binds with antibodies in solution. The binding rate depends upon the concentration of unlabelled antigen in the solution containing the antibodies and the labeled antigen. By comparing the binding rate of a known quantity of labeled antigen in an unknown solution with the binding rate in precisely prepared samples of known concentrations of antibodies, it is possible to measure the concentration of the antigen in the unknown solution. Not only is RIA able to measure concentrations very precisely, it can also single out one particular protein from among many similar ones. In their initial study of diabetes, they discovered that patients using artificial insulin developed antibodies to it [3]. The research used both Yalow's expertise in nuclear counting techniques and Berson's clinical expertise on diabetes. Yalow's work is a textbook example of creative science that crosses the boundaries of traditional disciplines.

Members of the biomedical research community recognized the accuracy and broad applicability of RIA. Hormones in the body have significant physiological effect when they are present in very low concentrations that could not be measured prior to the development of RIA. Today, RIA is a standard technique in a wide variety of biomedical research.

Because his MD carried more weight in medical circles than Yalow's Ph.D., Berson functioned as the public leader of their partnership although they worked as equals in the lab. After 18 productive years of research at the Bronx VA, Berson accepted the chair of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Yalow refused to move because she felt she would not have the freedom to choose research topics nor the support for her work that she had found at the VA. Berson spent four frustrating years at Mt. Sinai until his death in 1972. Yalow always acknowledged Berson's contributions to their joint research, even naming her lab for him. However, rumor in the research community held that Berson had been the brains of the collaboration while Yalow was a skilled technician who clearly did not deserve the credit for the work and therefore not a Nobel Prize. Yalow continued her work with other medical collaborators. Five years later it was obvious that her publication rate and quality and her creativity were unabated and the importance of her role in the collaboration with Berson became evident. In 1977, she shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with endocrinologists Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally, only the second woman to be awarded the prize in medicine or physiology and the sixth for all Nobel Prizes [4].

As RIA became an important tool in biomedical research, drug companies developed commercial kits for RIA procedures. Yalow turned down all offers to become a consultant. She received numerous prestigious awards including the national medal of science, and was elected to offices in professional organizations [3]. After receiving the Nobel Prize, Yalow was invited to speak out on many technical issues that impact society. She served as a consistent advocate for funding of and excellence in basic biomedical research and education. The Nobel Prize brought requests for her to speak out on issues such as nuclear power and the biological effects of radiation, and she felt that she should use her bully pulpit to influence public opinion. She held strong opinions and advocated forcefully for them, often offending those with whom she disagreed. Certainly, she felt a commitment to educate the public about technical issues that impact their daily lives. She served on National and International Boards and Committees where she felt her expertise could serve society. 

Yalow was adversely impacted by the fact that she was a woman on any number of occasions in ways that would have stopped a less determined scientist. When she entered the graduate physics program at the University of Illinois in 1941, she was the only woman among the 400 members of the College of Engineering. As usual, she worked extremely hard and received all A's except for an A- in Optics laboratory. The chair of the department told her, "That A- confirms that women do not do well at laboratory work" [2]. His attitude did not slow Yalow's progress towards a Ph.D.

The Yalows had a son and a daughter. They were able to live close to Rosalyn's work at the Bronx VA Hospital. With the aid of live-in help until her son was 9 and part-time help after that, she managed to work her usual cheerful 80-hour weeks while dealing with two small children. She cites two distinguished women physicists who were particularly supportive of her work, nuclear physicist Gertrude Goldhaber, whose husband Maurice Goldhaber directed Yalow's thesis (Gertrude Goldhaber held no official university position because of nepotism rules), and medical physicist Edith Quimby, in whose Columbia laboratory Yalow volunteered to work in order to learn about the medical applications of radioisotopes and who introduced her to leaders in the field. At Hunter, she began to mentor younger women physicists including Mildred Dresselhaus and Frieda Stahl, a practice which continued during her many years at the VA [6].

Although Yalow consistently supported women scientists, she did not consider herself a feminist. In fact, she refused to accept a woman of the year award from Ladies Home Journal because she felt that by accepting it, she would be making a statement that her work was remarkable for a woman but not equal to that of the best male scientists [5]. She firmly opposed affirmative action. At the same time, she was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and generous in encouraging young women. She consistently stated and demonstrated in her own life that success in science did not require a woman to give up marriage and children. As she put it, "If you want to be a good wife, you have to work a little harder." [6]

As the only woman Nobel Prize Winner in 1977, she was selected to give a special address to students at a banquet. In that speech, she very clearly stated her position on women in science:

We cannot expect in the immediate future that all women who seek it will achieve full equality of opportunity. But if women are to start moving toward that goal, 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 afterwards. The world cannot afford the loss of talents of half its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us [7].

The stress on competence and very hard work characterizes Yalow's approach to science. Rumor has it that she kept on her bulletin board a sign that read: "To be considered half as good as a man, a woman must work twice as hard and be twice as good," a standard sentiment, but Yalow had added in script, "Fortunately that is not difficult." Certainly controversy over Yalow centered on her statements on technologies and society and her approach to feminism but not her science.

Aaron Yalow died in 1992. Rosalyn Yalow is survived by their son, Benjamin, of the Bronx, and daughter, Elanna Yalow of Larkspur, California, and two grandchildren [1].


1. Gellene, Denise, "Rosalyn S. Yalow, Nobel Medical Physicist, Dies at 89,", June 1, 2011.

2. Yalow, R.S., "Autobiography," From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1977, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1978 and downloaded from, the official website of the Nobel Prize.

3. Straus, Eugene, Rosalyn Yalow Nobel Laureate: Her Life and Work in Medicine, New York: Plenum Press, 1998.

4. Dresselhaus, M.S. and Stahl, F.A., "Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921-)," in Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics edited by Nina Byers and Gary Williams, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 302-314.

5. Munson, Judith, "Rosalyn Sussman Yalow: Scientist Without Boundaries," in Celebrating Women in Mathematics and Science edited by Miriam P. Cooney, Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1996, pp. 172-177.

6. Biermann, Carol A. and Biermann, Ludwig, "Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921- )" in Women in Chemistry and Physics: A Bibliographic Sourcebook edited by Louise S. Grinstein, Rose K. Rose, and Miriam H. Rafailovich, Greenwich, Connecticut: Westwood Press, 1993, pp.626-639.

7. Reference 3, pp. 240-241.

Ruth H. Howes
Emeritus, Ball State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.