R.I.P. Rosalyn Yalow

June 2, 2011 • 10:17 am

Today’s New York Times reports the death, at 89, of Rosalyn Yalow, the second woman to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. (Yalow won in 1977; the first, Gerty Cori, got hers thirty years earlier. There have been eight female winners since Yalow).  If you want to see how much tougher it was for a smart and ambitious woman to make it in science fifty or sixty years ago, read her story.  Here is only one of many slights:

After she applied to Purdue University for a graduate assistantship to study physics, the university wrote back to her professor: “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.” No guarantee was possible, and the rejection hurt, Dr. Yalow told an interviewer. “They told me that as a woman, I’d never get into graduate school in physics,” she said, “so they got me a job as a secretary at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and promised that, if I were a good girl, I would take courses there.”

Yalow won for helping develop the technique of radioimmunoassay, which not only revolutionized endocrinology, but had important applications as a screen for viruses and other biomolecules.  She also had a lot of trouble getting her papers published, but, in Stockholm, got a small measure of revenge:

Dr. Yalow and Dr. Berson had to delete a reference to antibodies before The Journal of Clinical Investigation accepted their paper, and Dr. Yalow did not forget the incident; she included the rejection letter as an exhibit in her Nobel lecture.

. . . Five years after she received the Nobel, Dr. Yalow spoke to a group of schoolchildren about the challenges and opportunities of a life in science. “Initially, new ideas are rejected,” she told the youngsters. “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.”

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE:  Can you name the other eight female Nobel Laureates in medicine and physiology? I’ll put their names in a comment below, but think before you look.

23 thoughts on “R.I.P. Rosalyn Yalow

  1. Her story and struggle embody one of my deepest tenets (by way of Bill Clinton and Ratatouille):

    You never know where talent/genius will come from, and we don’t have a person to waste.

    1. Indeed. Dr. Yalow is a perfect example of why the Islamic world is fucking itself over with the way they treat teh wimminz. I guarantee you, there is a kindly grandmother toiling away at menial household labor somewhere in Pakistan who would have been every bit Dr. Yalow’s equal — if not better — had she been permitted the chance to go to school. All the men who’ve been inflating their egos by shoving her into the muck all these years are that much poorer as a result, and they have only themselves to blame.

      What’s even worse is that this faceless woman’s granddaughter would outshine the both, but for the fact that she’s about to be raped and then subsequently stoned to death for being a sexual libertine.

      Is it selfish of me to wish that the girl could grow up and go to college so I could benefit from the brilliant innovation in telecommunication that she would have come up with?



      1. From the large number of female muslim students I see in UCL (wearing a headscarf) I would say that once they leave heavily traditionalist countries the middle class muslim families are happy to send their daughters go into sciences in particular. However there is a class element here as well – poorer families are likely more restrictive.

  2. Here are the other eight winners:

    * 2009 Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider for studies on telomerase and its effects on chromosomes.
    * 2008: Françoise Barré-Sinoussi “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus”
    * 2004: Linda B. Buck “for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system”
    * 1995: Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard “for their discoveries concerning the genetic control of early embryonic development”
    * 1988: Gertrude B. Elion “for their discoveries of important principles for drug treatment”
    * 1986: Rita Levi-Montalcini “for their discoveries of growth factors”
    * 1983: Barbara McClintock “for her discovery of mobile genetic elements”

    1. I am ashamed to say I only recall Greider & Blackburn, and only after reading the names. I always think of Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered pulsars – yet the Nobel went to her boss Hewish. I am not sure about prizes – I suppose they are a nice recognition and can give a scientist a boost. However it is surely the acclaim of ones peers that matters? (I just came back from a prize lecture – the Imre Lakatos Lecture at LSE give by Peter Godfrey-Smith on the Evolution of the Individual.)

      1. I am not sure about prizes –

        Yes, especially the more one learns about the machinations and esp. the missed should-have-beens inherent in the process. And that the Nobel arbiters tend to have a bias toward making political statements. Even tho their politics seems allied pretty closely with mine, it still makes this less than the objective process one used to imagine.

        As to this ‘contest,’ the only name I got was McClintock, of course…seems as if she was and remained more in the news than the others; but its been hard not to notice and enjoy the increasing numbers of women awarded of late.

    2. Reading that list, the inevitable conclusion is that discriminating against women is an excellent way of ensuring that society as a whole is kept sick, short, miserable, and brutish.

      Even if you buy into some sort of bullshit about the inherent superiority of men (or whites or whatever), it should by now be overwhelmingly clear that all those inferior subhumans are creating a significant portion of humanity’s wealth, and they’re not doing it by groveling at your feet and under your boot. If you want to live to a ripe old age extended and enhanced by modern medicine (and the rest of science and technology), you damn well better get the hell out of the way of those damned uppity broads (/ niggers / spicks / fags / chinks / whomever). Might even want to think about throwing them a bone every now and again, too.

      …and that’s what I mean by morality as an optimal strategy. That SOB who rips up the bedsheets when he wants to play dress-up? Well, after his triple bypass, he owes his life to that filthy mud man, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, among others. Denying his great-grandaughter a physics scholarship to graduate school would be mighty stupid, dontchathink?



    3. I met Trudy Elion a few years back. Great gal; at that time quite emerita, but still sharp as a tack.

      She had similar difficulties in being accepted. In fact, while she earned honorary doctorates, she never completed her PhD work. Too busy in the lab, I suspect.

  3. Well, I don’t think I could name any of the male winners either …

    Well, there was that Dane with vitamin K, but the name escapes me.

    1. Have to say I agree with that. I could name a few men but not eight. I did get three which I thought was pretty good but mostly because Liz Blackburn’s lab was close to my postdoc mentor at UCSF, so I had two freebies.

  4. One should also remember women who should have shared in Nobel Prizes but did not. In particular, Lise Meitner who should have shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Otto Hahn and Chien-Shiung Wu who should have shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Lee and Yang for the discovery of parity violation in weak interactions.

    1. And, of course, the sad story of Rosalind Franklin, without whose work Watson and Crick would only have had a hypothesis. But who sadly died before the Nobel committee could rightly honor her as well as them.

      Seems a shame that the Nobel is only given to the living.

      1. Hi! De-lurking to express my amazement at Franklin’s treatment. Bryson’s book says she couldn’t eat in the dining hall among her fellow scientists. She had to eat in the kitchen.

      2. Unfortunately, even had she lived, it is doubtful she would have shared the prize as it is limited to 3 persons. Thus, in order to include her in the award, Watson, Crick, or Wilkins would have had to be dropped. Not likely.

        1. …as it is limited to 3 persons.

          Yet another bit of Nobel arbitrariness! And how unscientific.

        2. I have heard it suggested that Franklin and Wilkins could have been awarded the Chemistry prize and Crick Watson the Physiology and Medicine prize.

  5. I guessed (wrong) Lynn Margulis, and I kick myself for forgetting Barbara McClintock.

    The presumption that women aren’t cut out for math & science is still pretty strong even among us liberals. I’ve still got mental scar tissue from discussions over the Larry Summers remarks a few years ago. The “I’m too pretty to do math” magnet just got some play on Science Blogs, reinforcing the point, although in that case it’s fair to say that in high school most guys decide they’re too athletic, or something, to do math, too.

    As bad as sexism is, and even though it still infects those of us who champion science, it might be a lesser evil than anti-intellectualism. That’s not to say we don’t have to work on it, any more than we need to conceal our atheism to promote biology, but when the bigots are axing the budget for education there should be no question which side we’re on.

    1. Not sure what your last paragraph there is intending to say. Women’s rights have suffered for a long time because of being considered “less important” than a variety of other isms, like racism. I don’t think we benefit by making some egregious biases a higher priority than others (and see Ben Goren’s remarks above). But I suspect that isn’t quite what you meant?

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