Rosalyn Yalow

Maverick of Physics Advances Medicine in Unimaginable Ways

Photo of Rosalyn Yalow

Revolutionizing 20th-century medicine, Rosalyn Yalow, Ph.D. was driven to discovery. Born in 1921 in the South Bronx, New York, she eventually became the second American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The daughter of parents who never finished high school, Dr. Yalow was a skilled student with big dreams. While her parents strongly encouraged her to become a teacher, she was set on a career in medical research. She forged her own path, graduating magna cum laude from Hunter College (CUNY) as its first physics major.

As a woman in science in the 1940’s, she faced significant hurdles. Not able to pay for a graduate degree, she took a secretarial job at Columbia University in exchange for tuition. Later, she became the only female on the 400-member faculty of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She graduated from Illinois, earning a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, which paved the way for her research into radioisotopes.

Back in the Bronx, at the Veterans Administration Hospital, Dr. Yalow and her colleague Solomon Berson developed the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique to precisely detect and measure hormones, viruses, drugs, vitamins, proteins, and enzymes. This discovery made a significant impact not only in the treatment of diabetes, a disease that afflicted her husband, but it also paved the way to advanced biological research in areas such as infertility, antibiotic dosage, and virus screenings.

In 1977, Dr. Yalow won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and, in that same year, received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar award to Portugal.

Throughout her career, Dr. Yalow encouraged women to pursue careers in science. While at Hunter College, she mentored one of her talented female physics students, Mildred Dresselhaus, who would become a prominent American physicist, Fulbrighter, and Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee, as well as the first woman to win the National Medal of Science in Engineering. Dr. Dresselhaus remarked that at Hunter, it was the first time that she “had the idea that women could study physics as well as men could.”

Rosalyn Yalow developed new advances in medical research, created new opportunities for colleagues, and mentored women in science. She will be remembered for her determination, insights, and impact.

To learn more about Fulbright alumni who have won Nobel Prizes, click here for the full list.

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