A Trailblazer in Science: The Life of Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was born to Russian immigrant parents in New York City on July 19, 1921, and grew up in the Bronx. Her upbringing was modest yet deeply enriched by her parents’ emphasis on education. Encouraged by her father, a laborer in the garment industry, and her mother, a seamstress, Rosalyn displayed an early aptitude for learning.

At fifteen, Rosalyn began Hunter College, an all-female, tuition-free university in New York. Her parents wanted their daughter to become a teacher. Rosalyn quickly realized that she wanted to pursue a different career path. In the words of a classmate,

“She was very single-minded. She knew — absolutely knew — she was going to become a physicist. She told this to anyone who would listen.”

As Rosalyn said about the decision,

“I was excited about achieving a career in physics. My family, being more practical, thought the most desirable position for me would be as an elementary school teacher.”

After finishing her degree, Rosalyn sought to enroll in a Ph.D. program in physics. However, this proved to be a struggle because she was a woman and Jewish. Finally, she received an offer from the University of Illinois – Urbana as a favor to one of her Hunter College professors. Upon accepting the offer, Rosalyn became the only woman among the 400 faculty and teaching assistants in the College of Engineering.

Following her studies, Rosalyn joined the Federal Telecommunication Laboratory for a year and then worked as a teacher at Hunter College. But it would be her job at the Bronx Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital that would define her career trajectory.

The idea that physics could impact medicine, or medical physics as it was called, was still a relatively new field. Rosalyn’s husband, a fellow physicist she met in graduate school, thought it could be a good field for her. Upon the suggestion, Rosalyn volunteered to do research with a medical physicist at Columbia University. That physicist would recommend Rosalyn to the position at the VA. As Rosalyn recalled,

“I volunteered to work in [Dr. Quimby’s] laboratory to gain research experience…She took me to see ‘The Chief,’ Dr. G. Failla, dean of American medical physicists. After talking to me for a while, he picked up the phone, dialed, and I heard him say, ‘Bernie, if you want to set up a radioisotope service, I have someone you must hire.'”

With that, Rosalyn joined the Bronx VA in 1947 as the Head of a new Radioisotope Unit. There, she would meet physician Solomon A. Berson, and over the next twenty-two years, the two collaborated on groundbreaking research.

Rosalyn’s and Solomon’s partnership resulted in the development of radioimmunoassay (RIA). This technique allowed for precisely measuring minute quantities of biological substances in blood and other bodily fluids. Its significance lay in its ability to detect hormones, enzymes, and other biological molecules at levels previously thought impossible. Some applications included diagnosing thyroid disorders and monitoring insulin levels in diabetes patients.

This innovation soon became an indispensable tool in medical research and clinical practice, opening new avenues for research in endocrinology, diabetes, just about “every field of medicine.” In 1959, Rosalyn and Solomon published their seminal paper on RIA, garring widespread acclaim and transforming medical diagnostics.

As the two brought their ideas to the medical world, they also took the onus of marketing their work. “We not only discovered radioimmunoassay, we had to popularize it,” Rosalyn said. They often traveled, about which Rosalyn said, “You don’t go to the West Coast for two days and come back on the red-eye unless you’re crazy like me.” Rosalyn, who had been described earlier in her career as a “cheerful little dark-haired person, not very imposing,” now had people worried that she was too aggressive. Yet, the people she worked most closely with, those in her lab, didn’t see her this way. She was warm, thinking about their comforts and doing her best to care for them.

For her work, Rosalyn received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977, becoming only the second woman to receive this honor in that category.

Throughout these hard-working years, Rosalyn balanced work with family life. She and her husband raised two children, and he often took on more of the responsibilities, though Rosalyn did her best to help with the household even after long days of work. For her, doing so was just as important as doing outstanding research. Still, it wasn’t an easy balance to strike, especially as Rosalyn was often away.

In 2011, Rosalyn passed away at the age of 89.

Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow in a laboratory. She's smiling as she uses a long pipette to add a liquid to a beaker.
Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, 1977

Note

Click here to read a snapshot biography of another scientist, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu.

“A Trailblazer in Science: The Life of Rosalyn Sussman Yalow” sources