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Hall of Fame

Rosalyn S. Yalow

Rosalyn S. Yalow
Rosalyn S. Yalow
Pioneer in the discovery and development of radioimmunoassay, a revolutionary technique enabling major advances in endocrinology. Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1977.

Honored Posthumously

A medical physicist, Rosalyn S. Yalow revolutionized biological and medical research through her work with radioimmunoassay, a sensitive method for measuring insulin, hormones, and other substances in the blood. Yalow received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977 "for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones." Her research, conducted in partnership with Solomon A. Berson, challenged accepted knowledge about the immune system. Radioimmunoassay became a standard laboratory tool and made possible major advances in diabetes research as well as diagnosis and treatment of hormonal problems. Today, applications range from drug testing to blood screening to early disease detection.

Yalow graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College in New York, earning the first physics degree awarded by the college. In an era when few women pursued careers in science, she persisted in applying to graduate schools and was offered a teaching assistantship at the University of Illinois College of Engineering, where she was the only woman among 400 teaching fellows and faculty members in 1941. Her thesis director was Maurice Goldhaber, who later became director of Brookhaven National Laboratoreis. While at Illinois, Yalow became proficient at making and using instruments for measuring radioacive substances. Those skills would prove crucial to her later research career.

Yalow graduated with a doctorate in nuclear physics from Illinois in 1945. A native New Yorker, she returned home to work briefly as an engineer and then took a position teaching physics at Hunter College. Keen to do research, however, she volunteered at what is now the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center. There, she developed a radioisotope unit and collaborated with physicians on research.

By 1950, Yalow had resigned from Hunter College to focus on radioimmunoassay research with Berson, who would be her research partner for the next 22 years. Although their discovery of insulin antibodies was met with skepticism in 1956, the concept was transformed into a practical application for measuring plasma insulin within a few years. Other discoveries followed, including use of radioimmunoassay to detect insulin levels, hormones, and vitamin B12, and to screen donated blood for the hepatitis B virus.

Active until her death in 2011 at the age of 89, she served as senior medical investigator emeritus at the Bronx veterans medical center and as the Solomon A. Berson distinguished professor-at-large at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Her determination, optimism, and sense of humor were reflected in a comment to young students, which the New York Times published in her obituary: "Initially, new ideas are rejected. Later they become dogma, if you're right. And if you're really lucky you can publish your rejections as part of your Nobel presentation."

Yalow was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. She receive the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award in 1976 and the National Medal of Science in 1988.

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1977.

Degrees

  • MS, Physics, 1942
  • PHD, Physics, 1945
  • Doctor of Science Honorary Degree, 1974