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.