Yalow won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977 for the discovery of the radioimmunoassay (RIA) method for detecting small concentrations of compounds, especially hormones, in body fluids. RIA allowed scientists to study the action of hormones and other compounds in the body.
Born: July 19, 1921; Bronx, New York Also known as:Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (full name); Rosalyn Sussman (birth name) Primary field:Physics Primary invention:Radioimmunoassay technique
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (YAH-loh) was born in New York City to Simon and Clara Sussman, a Jewish couple with little formal education but who had a thirst for knowledge. Clara had only a sixth-grade education but read every book that her children brought home from school. Simon had completed only the eighth grade, but he too read avidly. He owned a twine and paper business. Rosalyn had a brother, Alexander, who was five years her senior. Learning to read at an early age, Rosalyn became a member of the local library on the day she turned five. Alexander was responsible for supervising the weekly trip to the library to turn in the last week’s books and get new ones. By the eighth grade, Rosalyn had become enthralled with mathematics. She graduated from high school at age fifteen by skipping grades, and in 1937 she entered Hunter College to study chemistry.
The chemistry classes were large, and Yalow received little attention from the instructors. The smaller Physics Department had instructors who showed an interest in Yalow and encouraged her. In January, 1941, she graduated magna cum laude with the first physics degree issued to a woman from the newly established department. Although she strongly desired to go to graduate school, Yalow was told that no school would accept a Jewish girl as a physics student; therefore, she made plans to work as secretary to a professor who would allow her to take physics classes. The military draft had so depleted the number of people wanting to do graduate work that the University of Illinois College of Engineering accepted her. She was the only woman in her class of four hundred. By January, 1945, she had earned her Ph.D. in nuclear physics and had met and married her husband, Aaron Yalow. She then returned to New York to teach at Hunter College. She took on the responsibility of establishing the radioisotope laboratory at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital because she missed research and teaching did not occupy enough of her time.
At the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, Yalow turned a janitor’s closet into a radioisotope lab and began to work with doctors in treatment and research. In two years, eight publications had resulted from her work with other physicians. In January, 1950, she resigned from teaching at Hunter College. At this time, Yalow realized that she needed someone with more medical background than she possessed, so she developed a working relationship with an internist, Dr. Solomon Berson, in the spring of that year. The pair worked closely together for the next twenty-two years, until Berson’s untimely death on April
11, 1972. He taught her medicine, and she taught him physics and mathematics. They worked so closely that they could anticipate each other’s thoughts. They also worked at a feverish pace, often through the night.
Yalow wanted to be not only a superb researcher and wife but also an excellent mother. In 1952, at age thirtyone, she had a son, Benjamin. Her daughter, Elanna, was born in 1954. The rules at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital required that women leave at the end of their fifth month of pregnancy, but Yalow had become so important to the hospital that no one told her she had to quit. On weekends, when Yalow took care of the lab animals, she took her children with her to work. Even with her exhaustive work schedule, Yalow kept up with her children’s activities. Both Benjamin and Elanna attended public schools and would go on to earn their doctorates.
At the lab, Yalow and Berson began working with radioisotopes to measure the body’s volume of blood, then the size of each body compartment. Using radioactive iodine 131, they studied thyroid physiology. A study using albumin labeled with a radioactive isotope led to knowledge of the rate of production of body albumin and other serum proteins. A study of insulin degradation led to the discovery that type II (adult-onset) diabetes is caused not by a lack of insulin production but by the inefficient use of insulin by the body. They also found that even a small protein such as insulin would cause an antigen to form. An antigen is any substance (such as bacteria or another foreign substance) that provokes the body’s immune response. To facilitate the analysis of samples, Yalow and Berson combined chromatography and electrophoresis. Their method allowed samples to be analyzed in a half hour instead of overnight.
In a 1956 research paper, Yalow and Berson described a new method of analysis using radioisotopes to measure the concentration of an organic compound. It required three years of work to refine the idea into a practical test. This method, called radioimmunoassay (RIA), meant that compounds could be detected using a drop, instead of a cup, of blood. RIA was not quickly accepted by the scientific community, but Yalow and Berson continued to do outstanding research using the method and also began to train others to use the method. They did not patent the idea, instead sharing with the medical community what they considered to be a valuable technique to study the body.
By 1970, RIA had become a successful, standard laboratory technique. When Berson died, Yalow was devastated, but she pushed forward. Her already large number of work hours increased, and in four years her lab produced sixty papers. In 1977, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Yalow retired from the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital in 1991.
Those who knew Yalow agree that she was a very determined medical physicist. In her lab, she was often terse with colleagues. At meetings, she was known to be critical of substandard research but fiercely protective of the people who worked for her. Many have been put off by her aggressive, less-than-tactful manner. However, according to her admirers, she had no time for niceties because there was research to be done.
Radioimmunoassay has changed the way that research on body systems is done. Before RIA, many of the body’s compounds were present in too small a concentration to be detected. The RIA procedure allowed scientists to study hormones in the blood. Medical uses for RIA have included studies on high blood pressure, infertility, nutrition, human growth hormone, infectious diseases, cancer, vitamins, and enzymes. The list of compounds that can be tested with RIA is almost as long as the list of compounds in the body. This noninvasive procedure can detect a billionth of a gram. No radiation touches the patient; the test is done on a small amount of blood (one drop) drawn from the patient. With RIA, a pediatrician can take a drop of blood from a newborn and detect problems at a very early point in the infant’s development; blood banks can scan the blood supply for different diseases; and forensic scientists can analyze drugs and poisons.
—C. Alton Hassell
Hahn, Emma. Sixteen Extraordinary American Women. 2d ed. Portland, Maine: J. Weston Walch, 2008. Includes biographies on women from different walks of life, including Yalow, Eleanor Roosevelt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Bonnie Blair, and Rachel Carson. Bibliographies.
McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch. Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993. Discusses the careers of fourteen women in science, Yalow among them, who were involved in Nobel Prizewinning projects. Index. Straus, Eugene. Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel Laureate: Her
Life and Work in Medicine. New York: Plenum Trade, 1998. A biographical memoir of Yalow written after she retired from the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital in 1991. Illustrations, bibliography, index. Tang, Joyce. Scientific Pioneers: Women Succeeding in
Science. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2006. The author analyzes the lives and careers of ten female scientists in the context of personal, cultural, political, and economic factors. Bibliography, index. Yalow, Rosalyn S., ed. Radioimmunoassay. Stroudsburg, Pa.: Hutchinson Ross, 1983. Volume 20 of the series Benchmark Papers in Microbiology, this book contains reproduced papers published in the field of RIA. Illustrations, bibliographies, indexes.