On March 3, 1913, 5,000 women marched up Pennsylvania Avenue demanding the right to vote. Although the 19th Amendment was not passed until 1920, this “national procession” was an important milestone in the struggle for women’s rights.
Significantly, March is National Women’s History month. The purpose of Women’s History Month is to raise consciousness and knowledge of women’s history by highlighting the contributions and struggles of various throughout our history.
The National Women’s History Project determined that this year’s theme would be Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination to honor “generations of women who throughout American history have used their intelligence, imagination, sense of wonder, and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions” to fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). With this in mind, my goal was simply to highlight a woman who made significant contributions to a STEM field. But this venture became much more personal.
I began by reading the autobiographies of women who received the Nobel Prize in a STEM field on the Nobel Prize website. I could not even pronounce, let alone understand, most of their discoveries.
I came across a physicist from New York City named Dr. Rosalyn Yalow who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977 “for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones” while she was working for the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx. I had absolutely no idea what radioimmunoassay was. But her autobiography was written with a voice that made me want to know her.
In a nutshell, Rosalyn (Sussman) Yalow was born on July 19, 1921, in the South Bronx, a working-class area of New York City. Her parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who, despite not having a high school education themselves, encouraged their children to graduate from college.
Dr. Yalow did not disappoint. She graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College, then an all-women’s program, at the age of 19 as its first physics major. Yet it was unlikely that a reputable graduate school would accept and offer financial support to a woman in the field of physics. One Midwestern university even wrote: “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 assistantship.” But no guarantee of employment was possible, and the rejection hurt.
In 1941, young men were being drafted into the armed forces, which helped Dr. Yalow gain acceptance into graduate school. Eventually, she was awarded a teaching assistantship at the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois where she became the first woman to join the engineering school’s faculty in 24 years.
As the only woman among 400 teaching fellows and faculty members, she faced a lot pressure to prove herself. For example, when she received an A-minus in one laboratory course, the chairman of the physics department said that the grade “confirms that women do not do well at laboratory work.” But she was undeterred, later writing “I was no longer a stubborn, determined child, but rather a stubborn, determined graduate student. The hard work and subtle discrimination were of no moment.” In January 1945, Dr. Rosalyn Yalow earned her Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics.
After graduation, Dr. Yalow returned to New York City with her husband, Aaron Yalow, whom she met at graduate school and married in 1943. In December 1947, she started working for the Bronx Veteran’s Association where she eventually met Dr. Solomon A. Berson. The two began a 22-year partnership and would go on to co-discover radioimmunoassay (RIA), which, in lay person’s terms, is an extremely sensitive way to measure hormones in the blood.
Their work challenged what was then accepted wisdom about the immune system, and initially medical journals refused to publish their findings. But their work eventually gained acceptance and revolutionized the field of endocrinology. Unfortunately, Dr. Soloman died in 1972 before their work was honored with the Nobel Prize. Dr. Yalow was only the second American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in the fields of physiology or medicine. The first was Gerty T. Cori in 1947.
At the Nobel Prize presentation ceremonies in Oslo, Norway, Dr. Yalow spoke about equality of opportunity, stating:
“We cannot expect in the immediate future that all women who will seek it will achieve [it]. 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 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.”
Dr. Yalow’s contribution to both women’s history and our scientific community is incredible, and I could have simply ended this article here. But as I was reading the numerous awards Dr. Yalow received during her lifetime, I noticed that in 1961 she was awarded the Eli Lilly Award of the American Diabetes Association.
Given that diabetes was a significant contributor to my father’s death at the age of 43, and my son, Benjamin (whose name is shared by Dr. Yalow’s son), was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at the age of 12, I looked further into her research. It turns out that the first hormone studied by Dr. Yalow was insulin (which coincidentally was discovered in the year of her birth).
The discovery of RIA made it possible to measure insulin, thereby enabling major advances in diabetes research. Dr. Yalow also trained a large number of researchers, whom she affectionately referred to as her “professional children.” Many of these researchers went on to become “masters of investigative endocrinology” in their own right, further compounding Dr. Yalow’s influence on the study of diabetes and other endocrine disorders.
Dr. Rosalyn Yalow passed away on May 30, 2011. I wish that I could have met her. Not only because of her tenacity, humor and brilliance, but because her work so profoundly affected my life. Nonetheless, I am so glad that I took the time to research her story. If it was not for Women’s History Month, I probably would not have taken the time to do so. What a loss that would have been.
Kimberly Duguay is the 30th president of the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys and an appellate attorney at the Monroe County Public Defender Office, where she practices in the areas of criminal and family law.
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