Persistence Despite Barriers: The Story of Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow

In 2006, as a newly appointed department head at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, moving from the University of Georgia, I made a trip “up-campus” to the Student Union building in Urbana, IL.   Its wood-paneled hallways have large photos or paintings of the most famous of University of Illinois graduates.   I, of course, recognized some titans of industry, government, and the media, but I stopped short and smiled when I saw the photo of Dr. Rosalyn Yalow, 1977 Nobel Laureate of Physiology or Medicine.  

This was a significant time for me as I was amid my veterinary training while also pursuing a Ph.D. that focused on thyroid hormone metabolism.  So, why was Dr. Yalow so significant to me and my work?   She and her mentor, Solomon Berson, M.D., invented the technique of radioimmunoassay (RIA), a technique for quantifying substances by reacting them with antibodies labelled with radioactivity. Their work initially focused on an insulin RIA, but eventually the technique was generalized to many hormones whose concentrations were previously quite difficult to quantify.  Thyroid hormones were very easily radio-iodinated like peptide hormones and measuring thyroxine (T4), triiodothyronine (T3) and reverse T3, as well as other thyroid hormone metabolites, were staple laboratory techniques for my thesis work, which I completed 5 years after her Nobel Prize.  So, Dr. Yalow brought some important recognition to my chosen area of research, endocrinology!

I’d also note that her photo shown with this blog post shows her using an example of an ancient (and taboo) glass pipet with which I spent many hours preparing RIAs. These have now been replaced by safer repeating pipettors and disposable plastic tips! 

However, just as importantly, Dr. Yalow broke societal barriers in academic science. As the following linked story from the University of Illinois demonstrates, graduating with her Ph.D. in Physics in 1945 at the end of World War II, she was at that time only the second woman to receive a PhD in physics in the history of the University of Illinois.!

For those remembering the veterinary profession then or even 20 years later, the diversity battle for recognition of women as excellent candidates for admission will be recognizable. In addition, Dr. Yalow was Jewish, also ironically a barrier at that time.   And with this announcement, the University of Illinois is honoring Professor Nadya Mason as the inaugural Rosalyn S. Yalow Professor at the Grainger College of Engineering at the U of I.

Yalow’s daughter Elanna commented on the new professorship:

For all the honors that have been bestowed on my mom, this named professorship has a special place…. Not only is it a recognition of the work that she has done but an opportunity to inspire future generations.

And may she continue to inspire women in STEM everywhere.

lead photo courtesy of U.S. Information Agency