Inventor of the Week Archive
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ROSALYN S. YALOW
In 1959, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow co-invented what is still one
of the most significant methods of chemical analysis used
in medicine: "radioimmunoassay" of human blood and tissue.
Yalow was born in 1921 in New York City. She began reading
before she entered kindergarten, and her first favorite subject
was mathematics. A high school teacher taught her love of
chemistry; and at Hunter College, two professors and guest
lecturer Enrico Fermi convinced her to major in physics, in
which she earned a BS in 1941.
That same year, Yalow was rescued from a future as a mere
secretary to scientists by the University of Chicago, which
offered her a graduate student position and teaching assistantship.
She was the only woman out of 400 members of the College of
Engineering faculty, and encountered the usual chauvinism:
she was told by her first Chemisty professor, for example,
that her A- grade "confirms that women do not do well at laboratory
work." But Yalow persevered, even while World War II increased
the teaching load and the students' stress level, completing
her dissertation in 1945.
Yalow returned to New York, where she taught physics to
WWII veterans at Hunter College. In time, she also secured
a research position at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital
(1947). Yalow's graduate work had been in the development
and use of apparatus for measuring radioactive substances;
now, she helped equip and run the VA Hospital's Radioisotope
Service --- one of the first such in the country --- often
inventing equipment for the new discipline as she went along.
After committing to the VA full-time in 1950, Yalow began
a 22-year partnership with Dr. Solomon A. Berson. Their first
joint efforts were in the use of radioisotopes to analyze
blood for evidence of thyroid and other diseases, and to observe
the distribution of globin and serum proteins. They later
expanded their methods to include the observation of hormones,
Over the years, Yalow and Berson developed a system by which
they would tag a known sample of a hormone with a radio-isotope,
then mix a blood sample of unknown content with a complex
of that tagged hormone and its antibody. Because the antibodies
regularly abandon the tagged hormones for any "naturally occuring"
hormones of the same sort, the amount of "stranded" radioactive
hormones in the final mixture reflects precisely the amount
of the same hormones occurring in the sample being tested.
This was radioimmunoassay (RIA), a revolutionary diagnostic
process that was largely ignored when Yalow and Berson published
it in 1959. Their primary use then for the process was to
study diabetes. But over time, their expanded applications
and their promotion of the method resulted in the scientific
community's rush to embrace RIA. Today, there are myriad applications
of RIA in use.
For example, pediatricians can use a single drop of a baby's
blood, in a process that costs less than $1, to detect and
cure one type of mental retardation; pediatricians also use
the process to detect and counter growth hormone disorders.
Blood banks use RIA to screen blood efficiently. Researchers
use RIA to study diseases as varied as high blood pressure
and infertility, and to test nutritional regimens. Clinics
use RIA to detect illicit drug use. In short, when Yalow accepted
the Nobel Prize in Medicine for inventing RIA (1977), on behalf
of herself and Berson, who had died five years earlier, the
Committee called RIA the most valuable advance made in basic
clinical research in the previous two decades.
Yalow and Berson could almost certainly have patented the
RIA process. If they had, the patent would inevitably have
made them millionaires. Instead, to their credit, they made
extraordinary efforts to get RIA into common use, because
they put its potential value to humankind ahead of its potential
value to themselves.
Rosalyn Yalow has been honored many times for this ethos
of service, as well as her scientific talents: for example,
she was the first woman to win the Lasker Award for Basic
Medical Research (1976); and recently, Yalow was inducted
into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame (1997).
She has continued to conduct and supervise research in the
same VA lab (now named for Berson), and to teach, as Berson
Distinguished Service Professor, at the Mount Sinai School
of Medicine, now an affiliate of the Bronx VA hospital.