For the love of physics

Celebrating Women's History Month

In the early morning hours of October 13, 1977, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow received a phone call with the news that she had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology. She was the first American-born woman to win a Science Nobel and only the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine. However her road to the Nobel Prize was not an easy one.  

Born in 1921, the accomplished Yalow graduated from high school at age 15. With no money for college, she relied upon her overwhelming desire to become a scientist, a desire that was helped along by good grades which won her free tuition and a coveted a spot at Hunter College. She studied Physics at the prestigious women’s college in New York where she excelled. It was here that her passion was ignited for nuclear physics after hearing Enrico Fermi give a presentation on newly discovered nuclear fission.

However, when it came to graduate school, good grades were not enough and none of the best schools were willing to provide financial assistance to a woman. Therefore in her senior year at Hunter, Yalow took a secretarial job with a biochemist at Columbia University. Upon her graduation she enrolled in business school for a brief time before being offered a teaching assistant position in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. The meager salary and free tuition meant she could continue her education and pursue her dream of becoming a scientist. At the time she was the only woman among 400 members of the faculty and the first since 1917.

In 1945, Yalow took one step closer to achieving her dream by earning her Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Through her Ph.D. research she became adept at building instruments to manipulate and measure radioactive substances. Still, it remained difficult for a woman to find a job in a research university. She became the first woman engineer at the Federal Telecommunications Laboratory, the research division of International Telephone & Telegraph Corporation.

Her love for research, nuclear physics and her husband led her to a new position at the Bronx Veterans Administration in New York, where she built and calibrated radiation detection equipment and created a plan for the safe disposal of radioactive material used in medical diagnosis and treatment. Because instrumentation was not yet available, Yalow designed and built most of her own equipment. Ultimately she built a full-fledged Radioisotope Service at the Bronx VA. Radioisotopes have become an essential part of medical diagnostic procedures. In combination with imaging devices which register the gamma rays emitted from within, Radioisotopes can be used for imaging to study the dynamic processes taking place in various parts of the body.

In 1950, Yalow partnered with Dr. Solomon Berson, a young physician just completing his residency and together they discovered radioimmunoassay (RIA), leading to new ways to use radioactive isotopes to measure blood, study iodine metabolism, and diagnose thyroid diseases. The technique they invented allowed the precise measurement of minute concentrations of antigens in the human body.

Diabetics no longer had to give 100 cc (equivalent of 1 cup) of blood for testing because RIA only needed 1 cc for an accurate reading. What’s more, RIA could detect every human hormone as well as nearly every biological molecule, and it could be done in any laboratory equipped to measure radioactivity.

By 1970, RIA had been widely adopted and had revolutionized endocrinology. Today it is used by blood banks to screen for hepatitis, cancer, ulcers and more. It is also used to screen newborns for thyroid defects.

In her remarks at the Nobel Banquet, Yalow hoped to inspire young women to enter the field of science: “(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 that beset us.”*

Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories from Illinois. Laura D. Hahn & Angela S Wolters, University of Illinois Press, 2018 p 53-61