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Rosalyn Sussman Yalow
Nobel Prize-Winning Doctor
(1921- )

From 16 Extraordinary American Women.
© J. Weston Walch, Publisher.

The Nobel Prize is one of the world's greatest awards. It is named after Alfred Nobel of Sweden, who became a millionaire after he invented dynamite. Perhaps Nobel felt guilty about having invented such a deadly weapon. Before he died, he said, "I want all my money to be used to establish an annual award for the person who has done the most to benefit the world community."

The first awards were given in 1901. Since then, nearly 500 have been awarded to scientists - but only ten have been women. Rosalyn Yalow was one of those women. In 1977, she became the second woman ever to win the prize in medicine.

Dr. Yalow was honored for her development of RIA, or radioimmunoassay. This is a test used to measure hormones, viruses, enzymes, drugs, and hundreds of other biological substances to help detect disease.

Dr. Yalow and her colleague, Dr. Solomon A. Berson, discovered RIA by chance. They had been trying to measure the amount of insulin in adult diabetics. The doctors quickly realized that RIA could detect and measure insulin. By using radioscope tracers, the RIA could measure more accurately (to a billionth of a gram) than any other process.

One of the members of the Nobel committee said the accuracy of RIA was like being able to detect "half a lump of sugar in a lake about 62 miles long and wide and 10 miles deep"! Today, RIA is used to test for hundreds of different medical problems in thousands of laboratories around the world.

Rosalyn Sussman was born in the Bronx, New York, on July 19, 1921. Her parents, Clara and Simon, were first-generation Americans. Clara's large family had moved to the Bronx from Germany. Simon's family had come from the Ukraine to the Lower East Side of New York City.

Simon started his own paper and twine business. He married Clara and they had two children, Alex and Rosalyn. They were poor, but they made the most of what they had. There was some money for Saturday movies and baseball games. For other entertainment, Rosalyn and Alex would go to the free public library once a week and load up on books.

Rosalyn was a bright child. She taught herself to read before kindergarten. She loved math and was very good at it, skipping several grades along the way.

When she was eight she started helping her mother with her home sewing business after school. They made collars for women's dresses; Rosalyn's job was to turn the pieces of cloth while her mother ironed them.

Rosalyn went to an all-girls' junior and senior high school. She loved all math and science, but especially logic. She liked to sort out problems and puzzles.

At 15, she graduated and entered Hunter College in New York City. After taking her first physics course and reading about Madame Curie, she knew she wanted to devote her life to physics.

Rosalyn graduated with highest honors as Hunter College's first physics major. She wanted to continue her studies in graduate school. But all of her applications were turned down because she was a woman and a Jew. The schools said she'd never be able to get a job with two such handicaps.

Finally, Rosalyn accepted a secretarial job at Columbia University. She knew this job would allow her to take graduate courses at Columbia - for free. Then, finally, she was offered a position as a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois.

She was the only woman in the College of Engineering at Illinois, and only one of three Jews. Another was Aaron Yalow. They met on the first day of graduate school and were married two years later.

After receiving their Ph.D.'s in physics from Illinois in 1945, the Yalows moved back to the Bronx. Rosalyn returned to Hunter College as a physics professor until 1950. Then she was appointed physicist and assistant chief of the hospital's radioscope service. This is where she first began her joint research work with Dr. Solomon A. Berson. Their research partnership lasted 22 years, until his death in 1972. Had he lived, Dr. Berson could have shared the prize with Dr. Yalow. (The prize is never awarded to someone who has died.)

In 1976 Dr. Yalow was the first woman ever to win the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research - just one year before she received the Nobel Prize.

Speaking for all women at the Nobel ceremony, Dr. Yalow said, "We must believe in ourselves or no one will. We must match our aspirations with competence, determination, and courage to succeed, and we must feel a personal responsibility to ease the path of those who come after us."

Remembering the Facts

  1. To whom is the Nobel Prize given?

  2. What was the name of the man who created the Nobel Prize?

  3. What was his invention?

  4. Where was Dr. Yalow born?

  5. Where were her mother and father born?

  6. What kind of business did Rosalyn's mother have at home?

  7. What did Rosalyn do to help her mother's business?

  8. Rosalyn graduated from what college as its first physics professor?

  9. What kind of job did Rosalyn have to take at Columbia University in order to study there?

  10. What do the initials RIA stand for?

Understanding the Story

  1. Dr. Yalow had to deal with a great deal of prejudice during the course of her career. How do you think she was able to overcome this and go on to help others?

  2. RIA was discovered by accident while Dr. Yalow and Dr. Berson were investigating another medical problem. How do you think scientists keep their minds open for such new discoveries while they are working on other problems?

Getting the Main Idea

Why do you think Dr. Rosalyn Yalow would be a good role model for the youth of today?

Applying What You've Learned

It was generous of Dr. Yalow to speak out for all women at the Nobel Awards ceremony. Do you think it is important for leaders to share the spotlight like this? Write a paragraph or two about what you would do if you received a Nobel Prize.

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