Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

(WOMENSENEWS)–Her parents, mindful of practicalities, urged Rosalyn Sussman to become an elementary school teacher, but the young woman had other ideas. Throughout her attendance at a New York City public high school and college in the 1930s, she was fascinated by math and physics and determined to pursue her life work in those fields. It was not a usual course for any woman, much less the child of a Jewish family with few financial resources and no formal education.

A looming world war siphoned American men from the fields of academe to prepare for the battlefields in Europe. In 1940, Sussman slipped into an opening created by wartime by winning a scholarship for graduate study at the University of Illinois. The lone female among 400 male students, she found among her classmates a soul mate, Aaron Yalow, the son of a rabbi. By 1945, she was married and had earned a doctorate in nuclear physics.

The discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 had raised the world’s fears of nuclear warfare, but also the world’s hopes for medical advances and other peaceful uses. Degree in hand, Rosalyn Yalow moved back to New York and became part of a vanguard research team at the Veterans Administration hospital in the Bronx to work using radioisotopes to measure previously unrecordable changes in the human body.

What became a revolution in immunology began as a procedure for detecting antibodies to insulin in diabetics in the 1950s but soon expanded to highly sensitive measurements of hormones, allowing doctors to diagnose excesses and deficiencies and to expand the study of brain chemistry. Because of this work, blood banks all over the world could screen for hepatitis.

In her autobiography, Yalow herself called this work as significant as the first telescope and the first microscope, with “unlimited potential for opening new vistas in science and medicine.”

In 1977, Rosalyn Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Her speech at the awards dinner focused on the “one way in which I am distinguishable from the other winners,” namely her gender. After a rhetorical nod to the lingering belief that women belonged only in the home, she said:

“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.”

Afterwards came not an avalanche, but a trickle. Since 1977, six more women have received Nobel Prizes in that rarefied category. In 2008, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi was recognized for her part in the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus, known as HIV.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].

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