Lawrence Solomon: Death of a maverick

(June 7, 2011) Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, winner of a 1977 Nobel prize in medicine and a lifelong fighter against personal and professional prejudice in science, died last week at age 89.

Some of her fights were personal. Despite excellent grades, universities were reluctant to accept her as a graduate student. As one mid-western university in the U.S. succinctly wrote to her advisor, “She is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman.” After she won her laureate, the Ladies Home Journal proposed an award for her achievement as a woman. She declined. While gender-based recognition was appropriate in areas such as athletics where men tended to be larger and stronger, she wrote the magazine’s editor in chief, there was no such justification in science, where men and women should compete against each other. “I therefore deem it inconsistent and unwise to have awards restricted to women or to men in fields of endeavour where excellence is not inherently sex-related.”

And some of her fights were professional. In 1956, when she and her colleague discovered and developed radioimmunoassay, a now-heralded technique for measuring insulin and hormones in the body, the journal Science and the Journal of Clinical Investigation both rejected their paper, which contradicted the orthodoxy of the day on antibodies. The Journal of Clinical Investigation eventually did publish their paper, but only after the authors removed all references to their heresy. That rejection letterwould become a favourite prop of Yalow’s in future speeches, including the one she presented in Stockholm in 1977 in accepting her Nobel.  The Nobel committee described their work, which became the basis for understanding Type-2 diabetes, as “a spectacular combination of immunology, isotope research, mathematics and physics.”

One lifelong area of Yalow’s work remains unfinished – her fight to demonstrate the benefits of low levels of radiation.

“Populations have been studied in geographic areas of increased natural radiation, in radiation-exposed workers, in patients medically exposed, and in accidental exposures,” she wrote. “No reproducible evidence exists of harmful effects from increases in background radiation three to ten times the usual levels.

“There is no increase in leukemia or other cancers among American military participants in nuclear testing, no increase in leukemia or thyroid cancer among medical patients receiving  I-131 for diagnosis or treatment of hypothyroidism, and no increase in lung cancer among nonsmokers exposed to increased radon in the home.

“The association of radiation with the atomic bomb and with excessive regulatory and health physics as-low-as-reasonably-achievable (ALARA) radiation levels practices has created a climate of fear about the dangers of radiation at any level. However, there is no evidence that radiation exposures at the levels equivalent to medical usage are harmful.

“The unjustified excessive concern with radiation at any level, however, precludes beneficial uses of radiation and radioactivity in medicine, science, and industry.”

To read Yalow’s Nobel acceptance speech, and see her rejection letter, click here.

For a biography of Yalow, click here.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and author of The

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