Rosalyn Yalow, PhD, became the first woman to serve as the Endocrine Society’s president in 1977, the same year she received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for developing the radioimmunoassay technique for hormone measurement. Endocrine News salutes this notable “grand dame of science” with a look at her life and career, as well as her impact on generations of endocrinologists.
In her Banquet Speech in Stockholm to receive the 1977 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, Rosalyn Yalow, PhD, wrote: “We cannot expect in the immediate future that all women who seek it will achieve full equality of opportunity. But if women are to start moving towards that goal, we must believe in ourselves or no one else will believe in us; we must match our aspirations with the competence, courage, and determination to succeed; and we must feel a personal responsibility to ease the path for those who come afterwards. The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us.”
Yalow, of course, won the Nobel for her work with Solomon Berson, MD, developing the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique to detect and measure hormones, among other substances – a technique that’s fair to say revolutionized medicine, first allowing scientists and physicians to measure insulin, and then expanded to test for HIV, cancers, drug concentrations, and much more.
The speech – a copy of which is displayed in the Endocrine Society offices in Washington, D.C. – ends with Yalow acknowledging that the next generation of scientists and physicians inherits the previous generation’s knowledge and problems alike and calls on both generations to join hands “work together for their solution so that your world will be better than ours and the world of your children even better.”
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1977 was divided, one half jointly to Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Schally “for their discoveries concerning the peptide hormone production of the brain” and the other half to Yalow “for the development of radio-immunoassays of peptide hormones.” (Berson had passed away; the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously).
Endocrine Society president Urusla B. Kaiser, MD, chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Hypertension; George W. Thorn, MD, Distinguished Chair in Endocrinology; and director of the Brigham Research Institute at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, as well as professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass., says that it was Yalow’s radioimmunoassays that allowed Drs. Guillemin and Schally to purify and isolate hypothalamic neuropeptides such as GnRH (also known as LHRH). “Dr. Yalow had a tremendous influence on my career,” Kaiser says. “My research focus during my fellowship was on how varying frequencies of pulsatile GnRH differentially regulated LH and FSH, based in large part on the work of Drs. Yalow, Schally and Guillemin, and the subsequent elegant studies of pulsatile GnRH done by Ernst Knobil. Dr. Yalow was also a tremendous role model for women in science!”
A “Backdoor” Route to Science
Yalow was born in New York City in 1921, to parents who had no formal education to speak of themselves but were determined to see their children attend college. By Yalow’s account, she wanted to pursue a career in physics, but her family thought she should be an elementary school teacher. Even the “backdoor” route that she used to start taking graduate courses came with the condition that she take stenography classes.
“Her presence at so many Endocrine Society meetings, where she was always smiling and exuding pleasantness and acceptance, impressed me greatly in those days when women were definitely not equal, especially in medicine. She made women feel welcome; she led the way in believing that research was interesting, and that we women could do it. It wasn’t something that she questioned.” – Ann Owen, MD
But by February 1941, she was offered a teaching assistantship in physics at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. “I tore up my stenography books, stayed on as secretary until June and during the summer took two tuition-free physics courses under government auspices at New York University,” she wrote for her Nobel autobiography.
Yalow was aware of the timing. World War II meant that with so many men overseas fighting, graduate schools were in danger of sitting empty. According to writer and lecturer Randi Hutter Epstein, MD, MPH, who detailed some of Yalow’s life and work in her book Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just about Everything, Yalow would later say, “They had to have a war so I could get a PhD and a job in physics.”
1959: The RIA Era Begins
It’s almost poetic that Yalow was born in 1921, the same year as the discovery of insulin. In 1947, Yalow joined the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital as a part-time consultant, and by 1950, she joined the VA full time. There she met Berson, where their first work was on using radioisotopes in blood volume determination, diagnosing thyroid diseases, and the kinetics of iodine metabolism. “It seemed obvious to apply these methods to smaller peptides, i.e., the hormones,” Yalow wrote in her Nobel autobiography. “Insulin was the hormone most readily available in a highly purified form…In studying the reaction of insulin with antibodies, we appreciated that we had developed a tool with the potential for measuring circulating insulin…Thus the era of radioimmunoassay (RIA) can be said to have begun in 1959.”
Andrea Gore, PhD, professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas (UT), tells Endocrine News that that RIA was the basis of her graduate work, which involved measuring pituitary and hypothalamic hormones in guinea pigs and monkeys. “Back in the day the instrument used to count the radioactivity (an index of how much hormone was in the sample) was connected to a dot matrix printer that churned out the results,” she says. “As the printout started emerging, I would hover over it like a vulture — I could tell from the first 20 tubes or so whether the assay worked. I will never forget that feeling of nerves while waiting to see if all of my hard work had paid off.”
“Insulin was the hormone most readily available in a highly purified form…In studying the reaction of insulin with antibodies, we appreciated that we had developed a tool with the potential for measuring circulating insulin…Thus the era of radioimmunoassay (RIA) can be said to have begun in 1959.” – Rosalyn Yalow, PhD, from her official Nobel Prize biography
When Marta Korbonits, MD, PhD, a clinical researcher in the Department of Endocrinology at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and Barts and the London School of Medicine in London, started in endocrinology, one of her first tasks was to do radioimmunoassay on hypothalamic hormones, growth hormone-releasing hormone, and somatostatin an in vitro, “kind of wrecked explant system.” “I very much was applying what Rosalyn Yalow was researching and actually inventing, which absolutely changed the whole phase of endocrinology,” she says.
Ann Owen, MD, says she also remembers the effects of Yalow’s contribution. “My mother had her hypothyroidism diagnosed in the 1950’s by getting her basal metabolism measured in one of those famous old contraptions,” she says. “When I entered medical school, we were taught that RIA was coming; it just wasn’t available yet, and thyroid and pituitary diseases were much more difficult to evaluate in those days. By the 1980’s, thanks to Professor Yalow’s research, we could determine with much more certainty the measurements of the hormones we needed to know; RIA was coming into common practice.”
“I do remember suspecting a thyroid receptor resistance problem in that era, when the patient’s, and her family members’ symptoms seemed obvious, but the thyroid functions were normal, if I remember correctly. We had not yet fully described receptors, qualitatively or quantitatively,” Owen continues. “Our department head went on a search to see if by chance an old basal metabolic apparatus was abandoned in a hospital closet somewhere, to help us prove by the old technique our thesis of hypothyroidism. He never found it. Thanks to Professor Yalow, we had entered the modern era of thyroid measurement with RIA, and there was no turning back.”
A “Grand Dame” of Science
In the September 2022 issue of Endocrine News, several members shared their memories of ENDO conferences past. One of the memories that stood out to Owen was seeing Yalow in the halls of the conference center, offering encouragement to other female researchers and endocrinologists in attendance, making good on her promise of collaborating with and championing the next generation, the next women to discover and develop the next revolution in research.
“Dr. Yalow had a tremendous influence on my career. My research focus during my fellowship was on how varying frequencies of pulsatile GnRH differentially regulated LH and FSH, based in large part on the work of Drs. Yalow, Schally and Guillemin, and the subsequent elegant studies of pulsatile GnRH done by Ernst Knobil. Dr. Yalow was also a tremendous role model for women in science!” – Ursula B. Kaiser, MD, President, Endocrine Society
“Her presence at so many Endocrine Society meetings, where she was always smiling and exuding pleasantness and acceptance, impressed me greatly in those days when women were definitely not equal, especially in medicine,” Owen says. “She made women feel welcome; she led the way in believing that research was interesting, and that we women could do it. It wasn’t something that she questioned.”
Korbonits says it was Yalow’s determination and steadfastness that caught her attention. “She was persistent and realized that she was onto something and then carried on despite sometimes bumps in the road,” Korbonits says. “She was working at a time when it was a lot more difficult for women than nowadays, and the fact that she was persevering all through that shows her commitment and drive and bravery that she actually managed to do that, which was a lot more difficult at the time than today.”
Gore remembers Yalow as a “grand dame” of science, an impressive presence, a passionate advocate for the truth. When Gore was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Yalow visited and talked about treating cattle with growth hormone (GH) to stimulate milk production.
“There was a prevailing myth that GH in milk would have effects on humans who consumed it,” Gore says. “Of course, that is nonsense because any residual GH would be digested in the stomach. Dr. Yalow was on a campaign to dispel that misinformation about GH in milk. This story is so relevant to current times, when there is so much misinformation out there, and it’s so important for credible scientific voices to set the record straight. I remember not understanding why she was so passionate about this issue. Now I understand.”
Epstein writes that Yalow had a sign in her laboratory with a quote attributed to renowned feminist and mayor of Ottawa, Canada (the first female mayor of any Canadian city), Charlotte Whitton: “For a woman to get half as much credit as a man, she has to work twice as hard, and be twice as smart. Fortunately, that isn’t difficult.” [The punchline was added by Yalow!]
Yalow shared a lot with the woman whose words she lived by. Yalow was the first female Endocrine Society president, paving the way for many more female presidents, including the current one, Kaiser. A visionary, a revolutionary, and a trailblazer, not just in science, but an early and significant volley against the glass ceiling.
Bagley is the senior editor of Endocrine News. In the February issue, he spoke with past Endocrine Society president Richard J. Santen, MD, about how clinicians can continue to see patients even after they retire using telemedicine technology.