Rosalyn Yalow, American medical physicist, Died at 89

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Dead, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow on May 30, 2011, she was an American medical physicist, and a co-winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (together with Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally) for development of the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique.

Born in Manhattan on July 19, 1921, the daughter of Clara (née Zipper) and Simon Sussman, she attended Walton High School.

She won a part-time position as secretary to Dr. Rudolf Schoenheimer, a leading biochemist at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Not believing that any good graduate school would admit and provide financial support to a woman, she took a job as a secretary to Michael Heidelberger, another biochemist at Columbia, who hired her on the condition that she studied stenography.

She graduated from Hunter College Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, with a B.A. in chemistry and physics, in 1941.

She was the perfect candidate for a graduate fellowship, but she was turned down by one university after another.

Only one admissions office was honest enough to admit the real reason: As a Jew and a woman, they believed that she would never get a job in the field.

In college, she had been warned to take typing and steno courses so she could support herself as a secretary while going to school.

It was simply an alternative way to work toward a doctorate.

The Sussmans did not have the money required for their daughter’s graduate tuition without some kind of financial aid.

If she worked at a university, she would be permitted to take courses gratis.

Rosalyn accepted a secretarial job at Columbia University and prepared to take night classes. At Urbana, twenty-year-old Rosalyn was the only woman among four hundred faculty and teaching assistants and one of only three Jews.

One of the other Jews was Aaron Yalow. Yalow, from upstate New York, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi and had entered the program at the same time as Rosalyn.

The two struck up a friendship that developed into a romance. On June 6, 1943, they were married.

It was through her husband’s encouragement and help that she made contact with Bernard Roswit of the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital.

In 1947, the Veterans Administration hospitals had launched a research program to explore the use of radioactive substances for the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

One of the hospitals chosen for this nuclear medicine project was the Bronx VA Hospital.

Roswit was impressed with Rosalyn Yalow’s ability and determination and offered her laboratory space and a small salary as a consultant in nuclear physics.

She held that position, together with her faculty position at Hunter, for three years. In 1950, she was appointed physicist and assistant chief of the hospital’s radioisotope service and left her teaching post for full-time research.

In 1977, she received the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine.

In between, her work included finding ways to use radioisotopes in medicine, and in particular, developing with other scientists a way to measure the amount of proteins like insulin in the body, using radioisotopes.

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