Rosalyn Sussman Yalow: An Orthodox Legend
As an Orthodox American Jew, the story of Rosalyn Sussman Yalow is the most relatable of all Jewish Nobel Laureates. She, too, was an American Orthodox Jew. She lived in New York her whole life, balanced her work with getting home for Shabbat, observing the Jewish holidays, and was part of a close-knit family, all while changing the world as we know it. Sussman Yalow was the first American‐trained woman to receive a Nobel Prize in any of the sciences and profoundly impacted the lives of billions.
So who was Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, and how did she change the world as we know it?
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was born in 1921 to an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bronx. After attending high school in the Bronx, she attended Hunter College, where her mother hoped she would study to become a teacher.
Her mother enjoyed retelling the following story reported in the NYT: “When’s Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was 3, her mother took her and her 8-year-old brother, Alexander, to see a Peaches Browning show at a local Bronx theater. On their way home that afternoon, they stopped in at the egg store, and when they came out, Rosalyn wanted to head home one way and her mother another. So Rosalyn sat down in the middle of the sidewalk and refused to budge.
Rosalyn Yalow and her mother, Clara Sussman, 92, tell the story the same way, including the part in which they went the way Rosalyn had in mind. But their interpretations differ. According to Mrs. Sussman, “Rosalyn must have been very tired from being at the show and just didn’t have the energy to carry her.” According to Dr. Yalow, last year’s Noble Laureate in Medicine, “I just sat down, and there was nothing my mother could do. A crowd gathered. We were going my way, or we wouldn’t go at all.” As Dr. Yalow finishes the story, a smile spreads over her face; it is a slow, inexorable, and totally charming smile of victory.”
Roslyn went on to study physics. In those days, women were rejected from many high-ranking positions just because they were women. Since Roslyn knew how to type, she was able to take two jobs as a secretary for Columbia University biochemists.
Dr. Randi Epstein of Yale and Columbia goes through this stage of Roslyn’s life in great detail. Roslyn graduated at the top of her class at Hunter College in New York’s Upper East Side. She decided she wanted to continue her education. Her teachers told her,” don’t you think it would be more appropriate for you to be a scientist’s secretary?” Yet she would not let herself be discouraged.
Since WWII had begun, many universities were seeking to fill research and professorship positions and were even willing to break their own norms of those days and accept a woman.
Purdue University called Hunter college and asked for recommendations, and they recommended her. Purdue said they would need to know she had a position once the program ended. Knowing she was both a woman and Jewish, Hunter would not give that guarantee. Purdue rescinded their invitation and wrote to Hunter, “She is a woman, she is from New York, and she is Jewish.”
The University of Illinois then accepted her, and of 400 members of her program, she was the only woman. Yalow later commented on this irony: “they had to have a world war for me to get a Ph.D.” Yet that is what it took. The fact that Universities were willing to look not only at male candidates afforded Sussman Yalow opportunities should not have gotten otherwise.
At the University of Illinois, Sussman met Aaron Yalow, whose father was a famous Lithuanian rabbi in Syracuse, New York (whose synagogue later closed as the conservative movement attracted most Jews in the city). The two agreed to have a Kosher home. Interestingly, Yalow, in contrast to Levy Montalcini, did place a great emphasis on marriage and raising children and believed there should be no conflict between the two. It is also possible that this was because the two lived in different worlds, one in Europe and one in New York City.
In a 1978 article about Sussman Yalow, the New York Times wrote:
“Yet Dr. Yalow was by no means a social rebel. Upon her marriage, she joined the wives’ organization in Illinois. “I’m a conformist,” she smiles, “I didn’t want to be different from other women or buck the accepted ways unless it was important to me. My husband is interested in having a kosher home. So how much more work is it to have a kosher home? On the other hand, if Aaron had interfered with my professional life, that would have been a matter of principle. If you would say as a woman I could not be a physicist, I would buck . . . but if you would say to me as a woman one should be a wife and think about some of the things wives think about’—she shrugs—” I” m perfectly willing to do that.” What does Dr. Yalow think wives think about? “Their husbands,” she laughed.”
And indeed, throughout her life, Sussman Yalow would go on to balance her family life with her career and passion for science.
In 1946 Yalow returned to New York and taught at Hunter College, where she inspired many young women to pursue a career in science. In 1947 she started working at the VA hospital in the Bronx, where she met Dr. Solomon Bernson, who could not get into medical school and got an MSc and started working in the hospital.
At the time, the VA wanted to explore ways of using radiation in medicine. Yalow and Bernson went on to develop the technique of radioimmunoassay. This radioactive testing method allowed for extremely exacting measurements of molecules in the blood, which allowed her to measure hormones, insulin, and enzymes. It is this discovery that allowed for covid testing, diagnosing type 1 diabetes, diagnosing blood diseases, and many more unfolding developments. They helped discover the way to identify vitamin B12, treat hepatitis, and so much more.
These discoveries also allowed for huge breakthroughs in many medical fields, including fertility treatments, diet, endocrinology, and more. One of the most amazing things–if not the most amazing thing–about Bernson and Yalow is that they refused to patent their discoveries or commercialize them; it was for the world to enjoy.
Yalow and Bernson also discovered that diabetes resulted from lower levels of insulin production, prolonging the lives of millions of people with diabetes. She received the Eli Lily diabetes award and many other awards.
Bernson died in 1972, leading Yalow to carry on much of his legacy and be the sole representative for many awards.
“But when Dr. Berson died suddenly in 1972, most scientists felt that Dr. Yalow alone would never receive the prize. No survivor of a scientific team ever had, and, besides, Dr. Yalow was a physicist among physicians and a woman in the realm of men. Only five women had ever won the Nobel Prize in science, and three of them had been married to their collaborators. More important, a voting member of the Nobel Committee had said her chances were finished, and she knew he’d said it.
After many discoveries changing the world of medicine, recognition has arrived. “In 1977, Yalow was the sixth individual woman (seventh overall, considering Marie Curie’s two wins) and the first American-born woman to win the Nobel Prize in a scientific field. She was also the second woman in the world to win in the physiology or medicine category.”
Rosalyn Sussman Yalow embodied the beauty of combining a life of tradition and modernity, family and career, friendship and professionalism, humility and distinction, all without asking for recognition or self-promotion. She was there to better the world, make the most of her potential, and do good for her family and community.
The article is based on my notes for my lecture series “Jews of the Nobel” given in Park East Synagogue, New York.