Rosalyn Sussman Yalow
AMERICAN PHYSICIST AND MEDICAL RESEARCHER 1921–
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1977 for her pioneering work in developing the technique known as radioimmunoassay (RIA), a method first applied to the measurement of concentrations in blood of the hormone insulin. Subsequently the use of RIA was extended to include the detection and quantification of a wide range of substances of biological interest, including other hormones, serum proteins, enzymes, viruses, and tumor antigens.
Born on July 19, 1921, in the Bronx, New York, Rosalyn Sussman studied physics and chemistry at New York's Hunter College, graduating in 1941. She was awarded a Ph.D. in nuclear physics by the University of Illinois in 1945. Two years earlier she had married fellow physics student Aaron Yalow. For a time in the mid-1940s Rosalyn Yalow worked at the Federal Communications Laboratory in New York, but then returned to Hunter College to teach physics. Her work in medical physics began in 1947 at the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in the Bronx, which was then in the process of establishing a radioisotope service.
After designing and building much of the equipment she would need to detect and quantify minute amounts of radioactive substances, Yalow devised studies in the early 1950s that used a radioactive isotope of iodine to investigate a number of physiological processes, including the metabolism of proteins. Similar studies monitored changes in insulin levels following the intravenous administration of foreign insulin in both diabetic and non-diabetic patients. The unexpected finding that radiolabeled insulin disappeared more slowly in patients who had received prior insulin injections led Yalow and her colleague Solomon Berson to postulate that the presence of the foreign insulin triggered antibody production. They further concluded that the binding of the radiolabeled insulin to these antibodies caused it to be cleared more slowly from the plasma. Yalow and Berson understood that the binding of labeled insulin to a fixed concentration of antibody depends quantitatively on the amount of insulin present. This led directly to their realization that RIA could be used to measure concentrations of the body's own insulin; insulin levels were not easily determined before the advent of RIA in 1959. Although slow to be adopted by others in the field, the technique was further developed by Yalow and Berson such that it could be used to measure concentrations of substances in body tissues and fluids in even infinitesimal concentrations. RIA is now used to identify hypothyroidism in newborn infants. It is also used in blood bank screening, for cancer detection, for the measurement of neurotransmitters, and in forensic chemistry.
Yalow received many honorary doctorates and awards in addition to her 1977 Nobel Prize (which she shared with Andrew Schally and Robert Guillemin). She was the first woman to receive the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research (1976). She has served on several national committees, among them the President's Study Group on Careers for Women. Particularly interested in early science education, she frequently visits junior high and high schools. A strong supporter of nuclear medicine and a defender of nuclear power generation, she works to increase public awareness of the major benefits of these technologies.
Biermann, Carol A., and Biermann, Ludwig (1993). "Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921– )." In Women in Chemistry and Physics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook , ed. Louise S. Grinstein, Rose K. Rose, and Miriam H. Rafailovich. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Nathanson, Brina (1997). "Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921– )." In Women in the Biological Sciences: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook , ed. by Louise S. Grinstein, Carol A. Biermann, and Rose K. Rose. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Yalow, Rosalyn Sussman (1978). "Rosalyn S. Yalow." In Les Prix Nobel. Stockholm: Nobel Foundation.