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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A Nobel Laureate’s Advice to Women Scientists

When Rosalyn Yalow was young, her mother often expressed gratitude that the girl “chose to do acceptable things,” Yalow recalled many years later.  Yalow was such “stubborn, determined” girl that, she continued, “if I had chosen otherwise, no one could have deflected me from my path.” Fortunately Yalow, who died on May 30 at the age of 89, chose the acceptable — if, at the time, highly unconventional — path of science. But, as she recounted in her Nobel Prize autobiography, it took all the stubbornness and determination she could muster, plus the aid of some very supportive teachers and the good luck of the World War II draft, for her to achieve the career that made her, in 1977, only the second female laureate in medicine or physiology.

She also achieved the life she wanted beyond science.  She felt a “duty to speak to young women, to encourage them to have careers, and particularly careers in science,” according to the Washington Post.  But she also advised that “all women scientists should marry, rear children, cook and clean in order to achieve fulfillment, to be a complete woman.”  Live-in hired help supplemented her own domestic efforts while her two children were small.  Her daughter, the Post reported, considered her “a pretty wonderful mother.”

Honored for “the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones,” a technique that has revolutionized biology and medicine, she almost didn’t have a scientific career at all. Born in 1921 to parents who had not finished high school, she received a degree in physics — the first that Hunter College, the highly competitive public women’s college in New York City, had ever awarded — with high honors at the age of 19. But she only got a job somewhat related to science — as a secretary to a biochemist at Columbia University — with the help of her professors and because she “agreed to take stenography.” (For those too young to remember, that was the special notation system used to take dictation, which the secretary then typed up in regular English.) “The position was supposed to provide an entree for me into graduate courses.”

Getting admitted to graduate school was problematic for Rosalyn Sussman, as she was then known. As the New York Timesrecounts, one of the schools she applied to, Purdue University, feared she would have no employment prospects a scientist. In a letter to her professor at Hunter, Purdue listed her apparent drawbacks. “She is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman. If you can guarantee her a job afterward, we’ll give her an assistantship.” (To give Purdue credit, among its antique notions was the idea that departments accepting students for graduate study have a responsibility to think about their future career possibilities.)

The offer of a graduate assistantship finally came from the University of Ilinois, where “at the first meeting of the Faculty of the College of Engineering I discovered I was the only woman among its 400 members,” she noted in her Nobel autobiography. “The Dean of the Faculty congratulated me on my achievement and told me I was the first woman there since 1917,” during World War I. “It is evident that the draft of young men into the armed forces, even prior to American entry into the [second] World War, had made possible my entrance into graduate school.”

When an A-minus in the laboratory portion of an optics course marred her otherwise straight-A record in her first term, the department chair drew a scientific conclusion: “That A- confirms that women do not do well at laboratory work,”‘ the autobiography continues. “But I was no longer a stubborn, determined child, but rather a stubborn, determined graduate student. The hard work and subtle discrimination were of no moment.”

In 1943 she married fellow physics graduate student Aaron Yalow, and in 1945 received her Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Returning to New York that same year, the Yalows eventually settled in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and had two children while Rosalyn pursued her career, first as a faculty member at her alma mater, Hunter, and then as a full-time researcher at the Veterans Administration in the Bronx. The family lived “less than a mile from the VA. With sleep-in help until our son was 9, and part-time help of decreasing time thereafter, we managed to keep the house going and took pride in our growing children.”

Rosalyn Yalow’s stubbornness and determination served her well not only in gaining her education, establishing her career, and running her household, but in the pioneering scientific work she did at the VA in partnership with Solomon Berson, who died in 1972. Not only did they publlish the “brilliant, now classical papers [that] described the radioimmunological assay method (or RIA) in detail,” a feat “accomplished by a spectacular combination of immunology, isotope research, mathematics and physics,” according to the Nobel press release. They also rejected a “prevailing concept” about diabetes.

Another thing she rejected was an award as “woman of the year” that she considered demeaning. In her autobiographical statement, however, the people who inspired her and recognized her intellectual worth receive full credit. Her parents always assumed their children would graduate from college. A “great” high school chemistry teacher “excited [her] interest” and two outstanding college professors — all three of these mentors were male, by the way — guided her toward “physics, and in particular nuclear physics,” which during her college days was “the most exciting field in the world.” The biography of Marie Curie, “which should be a must on the reading list of every young aspiring female scientist,” was an important influence, she adds. And when admission to graduate school appeared “unlikely” and her parents thought that elementary school teaching was a much more attainable and practical career, her professors encouraged her aspirations. With their support, and true to her “stubborn, determined” nature, “I persisted.” The rest, as they say, is scientific history — and an example of an full life inside and outside of science.