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Rosalyn S. Yalow, 1921 - 2011

Rosanlyn S. Yalow

Portrait of Rosalyn S. Yalow. Williams Haynes Portrait Collection, CHF

In 1977 Rosalyn Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Her radioimmunassay research allowed for the testing of very small amounts of hormones and other biological substances using radioactive isotopes. Originally used for diabetes testing, radioimmuneassays became useful for detecting all manner of hormonal and endocrine disorders. Yalow passed away last Monday.

When Yalow was born in 1921, Marie Curie was the only woman to have won a Nobel Prize (two, actually). It wasn’t until Yalow was 14, in 1935, that another woman – another Curie, in fact – won. And before Yalow was awarded her Nobel only 3 other women would win prizes in the sciences: Gerty Cori for Physiology or Medicine in 1947, Maria Goeppert Mayer for Physics in 1963, and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin for Chemistry in 1964.  

CHF works diligently to promote public understanding of science and public interaction with the science that surrounds our daily lives. Sometime that science’s history is admirable and heroic. Other times, it is not. While Yalow undeniably deserved her Nobel Prize and the recognition that accompanied it, women in the mid-1970s were only beginning to make serious in-roads into scientific fields. It was not until 1978, for example, that the UC Berkeley and Harvard chemistry departments, some of the most esteemed in the nation, hired their first female tenure track professors. Even then, only 7 university chemistry departments could boast of having women on the tenure track.

Admittedly, things have gotten better. In 2009 the Nobel Prize was awarded to five women – a record! But as we remember the challenges Yalow faced, and celebrate her accomplishments despite them, it would be an honor to her memory to encourage more women into the sciences.

Hilary Domush is a program associate in oral history at CHF.

Related:
Rosalyn Yalow's Nobel Speech [Nobelprize.org]
Rosalyn S. Yalow, Nobel Medical Physicist, Dies at 89 [New York Times]

Posted In: History

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