Rosalyn Yalow (1921-2011)

Nobel laureate Dr. Rosalyn Yalow passed away May 30, the New York Times reported today. I want to offer my condolences to Ben Yalow, her son, who I’ve worked with on many convention committees over the years.

Dr. Yalow shared the  Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1977 with Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Schally for development of the radioimmunoassay (RIA) technique, described in the Times obituary as

an extremely sensitive way to measure insulin and other hormones in the blood. The technique invigorated the field of endrocrinology, making possible major advances in diabetes research and in diagnosing and treating hormonal problems related to growth, thyroid function and fertility.

This discovery was one of many she made with Dr. Solomon Berson, her colleague who passed away in 1972:

With Dr. Berson, Dr. Yalow made other discoveries. Using radioimmunoassay, she determined that people with Type 2 diabetes produced more insulin than non-diabetics, providing early evidence that an inability to use insulin caused diabetes. Researchers in her lab at the Bronx veterans hospital modified radioimmunoassay to detect other hormones, vitamin B12 and the hepatitis B virus. The latter adaptation allowed blood banks to screen donated blood for the virus.

The UK Telegraph, in its lengthy obituary, made this significant observation:

The commercial possibilities for RIA were enormous, but while Rosalyn Yalow and Berson recognised this, they refused to patent their method. Instead they made every effort to get RIA into common use, putting its scientific value ahead of their own financial interests.

Dr. Yalow had some limited contact with fandom, such as participating in the 1989 Worldcon program (Noreascon III). Either there or at another con, Isaac Asimov engaged her in debate about a question to do with radiation and later claimed victory in his memoir I, Asimov. However, Mark Olson, in his review of that book, denies that Asimov triumphed:

He grumps that he wasn’t able to convince her and comments that while they were both equally stubborn, he was right, and she was wrong! (And the really amusing part is that, as he describes the point at issue in his essay, he was almost certainly wrong, and in a fairly elementary way!)

Dr. Yalow was the subject of a biography by Eugene Straus, M.D., published in 1998, available in searchable form on and as a paperback.

Her autobiographical article on the Nobel Prize website is here.

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