Scientist Spotlight: Rosalyn Yallow

Anyone will tell you hard work and persistence pays off. Nothing was more true for Rosalyn Yalow. Born in 1921, Rosalyn began reading in preschool. Her parents knew she’d go far, but thought it’d be best for her to be a schoolmistress. Rosalyn, however, had bigger dreams. She persisted in her plan to become a physicist and eventually won the Nobel Prize in 1977.

Rosalyn’s love of chemistry began in high school but at Hunter College her interests shifted to physics. In her junior year, she hung from the rafters so she could hear physicist Enrico Fermi speak in a packed lecture room. Rosalyn was excited to one day become a physicist and possibly win a Nobel Prize.

Her path to scientific fame wasn’t clear-cut, however. Rosalyn’s family did not think any graduate school would accept and/or offer financial aid to a woman pursuing a degree in physics. Nonetheless, Rosalyn and her advisors persisted and the University of Illinois offered Rosalyn a teaching assistantship in 1941. She was the only woman on a faculty of 400 professors and teaching assistants. At the University of Illinois, Rosalyn earned her master’s degree and PhD.

After completing graduate school in 1945, Rosalyn began working at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in the Bronx to determine how to use radioisotopes in medicine. With little funding, Rosalyn relied on innovation and converted an old janitor’s closet to one of the nation’s first radioisotope labs. Rosalyn worked closely with her lab partner, Solomon Berson, and discovered how radioactive isotopes could measure blood, study metabolism, and diagnose diseases.


Rosalyn in her lab in the Bronx.

However, these discoveries were just the beginning of the duo’s collaboration. They soon applied their methods to hormones, creating the radioimmunoassay technique (RIA) by tagging hormones with a radioactive isotope and measuring the amount of antibodies created. The RIA technique is still used today to check for many different diseases and medical issues. Doctors use RIA to screen unborn babies for fatal diseases, detect thyroid issues, and assure blood banks are safe and clean.

Solomon and Rosalyn used their RIA method to research diabetes, an endocrine gland disorder that affected Yalow’s husband. The two scientists discovered how insulin


Rosalyn works with isotopes for her research.

worked in the body and determined the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes. The precision of RIA and the discoveries of Solomon and Rosalyn revolutionized endocrinology and has allowed doctors to better treat hormonal diseases.

Solomon died of a heart attacked in 1972, and Rosalyn was devastated. She lost her best friends and her lab partner. Rosalyn realized she needed to prove herself now that she was a lone woman in the scientific sphere. She worked hard and published over 60 research articles in only 4 years. Rosalyn never gave up on her dream and kept a chilled bottle of champagne in her office every year in case she won the Nobel Prize. In 1977, that dream came true when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work in endocrinology.

We all face obstacles, and Rosalyn is a prime example of how we should not give up on chasing our dreams. In her own words, “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.”


To learn more about Rosalyn:

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Have Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky

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