By Eleanor Garrigan Mattar
July 2021 saw what would have been the 100th birthday of Rosalyn Yalow — a Nobel Prize-winning medical physicist. Despite Yalow’s development of the radioimmunoassay technique, which allows the concentration of substances in biological contexts to be measured and has impacted virtually every aspect of medicine and biology, her name, like that of many other female scientists, has been largely forgotten by history. Nonetheless, Yalow herself would object to any implied feminist slant here: were she reading this article, I suspect she would point out that Solomon Berson, her collaborator, has also been largely forgotten. Whilst it might be tempting to view Yalow’s life and achievements through the lens of second-wave feminism—a woman forcing her way into a male-dominated field, borne on the shoulders of her sisters—this is neither Yalow’s story nor her own view of her life. It is only through nuanced profiles of the pioneering women of the last century that we can hope to understand both the challenges they faced and the depth of the patriarchal roots in the scientific community.
Rosalyn Yalow was born in the Bronx, New York in 1921 into a Jewish household. Her parents had little formal education and Yalow attended public school and college in the city. The fact that she was a self-made woman, who had to rely on personal intelligence and determination to get ahead, was a point of pride for Yalow. Her decision to become a physicist triggered considerable friction in Yalow’s life; her family had assumed that she would become a teacher like most other college-educated women. Yalow also felt that her ambition made her female peers dislike her and, throughout her life, she had very few female friends who weren’t scientists.
Whilst it might be tempting to view Yalow’s life and achievements through the lens of second-wave feminism—a woman forcing her way into a male-dominated field, borne on the shoulders of her sisters—this is neither Yalow’s story nor her own view of her life.
From her time in college, Yalow is remembered as being a brilliant student, but was also described by her physics professor as being ‘very aggressive’ and ‘as cold blooded as they make it’. These descriptions were not intended to be complimentary—there is a sense that Yalow’s ambition was unseemly in a woman. This ambition, however, was necessary for Yalow to progress. Playing down these aspects of her character would be doing Yalow a disservice; they were a major reason why she was able to succeed.
After college, Yalow became the secretary of Dr. Rudolf Schoenheimer, an eminent biochemist at Columbia University. Whilst this role wasn’t in line with her education or abilities, there were no graduate schools at the time that would admit and financially support her, so she used the secretarial job as a backdoor into graduate courses. When she did manage to become a graduate teaching assistant in the University of Illinois’s physics department a few years later, the only woman among the 400 members of that department, she wryly attributed this development to the Second World War beginning, claiming ‘they had to have a war so that I could get a Ph.D. and a job in physics’. Indeed, the University of Illinois had only admitted women to avoid closure due to a lack of pupils.
In 1947, Yalow became a consultant to the Bronx Veteran’s Administration Hospital, where she began the research that led to the development of radioimmunoassay (RIA). RIA is a method of measuring infinitesimally small amounts of virtually any substance in the human body. Yalow and her collaborator Solomon Berson developed it whilst studying the metabolism of the hormone insulin, which is responsible for regulation of blood sugar levels. Subjects were injected with beef insulin, which had been tagged with radioactive iodine so it could be tracked. It was discovered that, if a patient had been previously treated with insulin, they were effectively mmunized. This meant that when the radioactive insulin was injected, it bound to a large protein in the blood plasma (an antibody), which kept the insulin in circulation in the blood stream and allowed for continual blood sugar regulation. Yalow and Berson observed that radioactive insulin could be displaced from the antibody molecules by insulin native to the patient. By determining the precise amount of radioactive insulin displaced from the antibodies by a known volume of a patient’s blood, they could measure the endogenous insulin concentration. This was revolutionary: it allowed for a far higher quality of life for diabetics, as they could now monitor the concentration of insulin in their blood and adjust it with injections as necessary.
Yalow and Berson didn’t stop at insulin: RIA transformed medicine by enabling accurate measurement of virtually any hormone, vitamin, or enzyme. This was accompanied by considerable commercial repercussions, but Yalow and Berson never patented RIA, believing that ‘patents are about keeping things away from people for the purpose of making money. We wanted others to be able to use RIA’.
Yalow’s refusal to patent RIA reflects her noble attitude towards science. She was utterly dedicated to her work, driven not by financial gains, but by a genuine belief in its importance. This may explain how she was capable of raising a family and maintaining a home throughout her remarkable career. Undeniably, she was an extraordinary person.
Yalow’s refusal to patent RIA reflects her noble attitude towards science. She was utterly dedicated to her work, driven not by financial gains, but by a genuine belief in its importance.
She did not, however, feel that her position need be extraordinary. It was said of her that ‘she feels that all women scientists should marry, rear children, cook, and clean in order to achieve fulfillment, to be a complete woman’. However remarkable Yalow was, she was never a revolutionary. Her ideas of gender were still firmly stuck in the attitudes of her time.
Furthermore, her refusal to acknowledge ever facing gender-based stereotypes or bias meant that Yalow never felt the need to initiate wider change in the scientific community. She was a staunch individualist when it came to her dealings with other female scientists. Whilst she would encourage and support young women with promising scientific potential, she would never support women’s organisations, in opposition to the idea that women should be treated any differently from men in the workplace.
Today, Yalow’s views may seem short-sighted, but any judgment should also question why professionally excelling women are expected to also be more politically active than their male peers. The scientific legacy Yalow has left is remarkable by itself. Set against the backdrop of a hostile environment, Yalow’s path distinguishes her as one of the extraordinary figures of the last century.