Dr. Rosalyn Yalow / Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
Editor’s Note: Tova Rubin was a finalist for The Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing. Nearly 70 contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Choose a living or deceased Jewish-American woman and write about her legacy in any field such as law, medicine, sports, politics, entertainment, and more. Why are her accomplishments meaningful to you?” The contest was sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group.
Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear army camouflage and combat boots, while others wear stethoscopes around their necks. Dr. Rosalyn Yalow donned a traditional white lab coat, goggles and gloves to pursue a dream that was unheard of in her day. In 1921, Yalow was born with two strikes against her: she was a woman and a Jew. Despite this, she persevered and embraced the title of “different.” Against all odds, she was awarded the most prestigious prize in science and broke barriers for generations of women who followed.
Yalow’s success emerged from the way she dealt with many challenges that she faced. After attending the all-female Hunter College, she resisted familial pressure to become a teacher, never surrendering her dream of becoming a scientist. Even her mentors were skeptical that she would gain admission to a top graduate school, recommending instead that she work as a secretary for a prominent scientist. But Yalow never gave up hope, proving all doubters wrong when she was ultimately accepted to the school of her choice.
When she attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Yalow was the only woman in a class of 400 men. Despite this, Dr. Yalow continued to pursue her dream, never allowing fear to overcome her. She earned her degree in 1942, and her Ph.D. in 1945. Eventually, Dr. Yalow formed a partnership with Solomon Berson, a prominent scientist, and together they discovered radioimmunoassay, commonly known as RIA. Through RIA, they were able to trace miniscule amounts of multiple substances in human blood and in other aqueous substances as well. This landmark technique allows the screening of donated blood to prevent harmful diseases such as hepatitis from entering the recipient’s body. Through her research, countless patients are able to receive blood transfusions safely, preventing many diseases from being transferred from the donor to the recipient.
Dr. Yalow was the first woman awarded the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. She was awarded the William S. Middleton Award, and the most renowned of all, the Nobel Prize, for her vital role in radioimmunoassay.
Dr. Yalow leaves behind a legacy filled with endurance, bravery and most important of all, loyalty. Her values, religion and beliefs always remained constant; she and her husband kept a kosher home and she always took pride in her Jewish identity. Yet, at the same time, she paved the way for all young women of her generation who would peer through their windows each morning as their husbands would go to work. In their mind’s eye, they may have watched Dr. Yalow in envy as she made her way to the lab, and in turn, were inspired to follow her example and join the workforce too. I commend Rosalyn Yalow for staying true to herself and will forever be in her debt for showing women like me that being different should never be an obstacle preventing success.