Rosalyn Yalow: opinions and actions
Brooklyn, New York, United States
“Peer-review process cannot possibly support truly original research because, by definition, an original thinker has no peers.”
Anyone who had even a brief conversation with Rosalyn Yalow will recognize her profound insight and bold judgment. These were not idle words: Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, the second woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, never took a cent from the peer-review-run National Institutes of Health. This refusal of the organization is not to say that she wouldn’t accept federal funding, but if she did, it would be mostly on her terms. Rosalyn Yalow, who graduated from Hunter College in New York City, and earned her Ph.D. in physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana, joined the Radioisotope Unit of the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital in December 1947 and worked there throughout her career. In 1950, she brought Solomon A. Berson, a physician, to the VA to complement her background in physics. Together they produced a vast and significant body of research, including the development of the radioimmunoassay (RIA). Berson left the VA for Mount Sinai Hospital in 1968 and died in 1972. Yalow, continuing her research work at the VA, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1977 (shared with Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Shally). The details of her remarkable life and work are described with great admiration and understanding by her student, collaborator, and friend, Eugene Straus.1
I heard Rosalyn Yalow’s opinion of the peer-review system during a lecture she gave at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in 1984. But this wasn’t the first time I admired Rosalyn Yalow’s sharp insight and precise, well-chosen wording: two years earlier I had telephone conversations with her, which she followed with fascinating correspondence. The reasons were political rather than scientific. As a Jewish immigrant from Poland, I had sympathy for the country of my youth when it suffered the imposition of martial law in December of 1981 by the government attempting to crush the Solidarity Movement. I learned that the Pugwash Conference was scheduled to take place in Warsaw in August 1982 and that Nobel Laureates in the Natural Sciences were being invited to participate. To understand the irony and the implications of this plan, one needs to remember that the Pugwash Movement started as a result of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto written in 1955, and called for action by scientists to work for world peace (and nuclear disarmament). While the Pugwash Council’s decision to proceed with a conference in a country under the martial law could be questioned and discussed, it was clear that participation might be viewed as an expression of support for the regime. I contacted as many American Nobel Laureates as I could to talk to them about declining the Pugwash Conference invitation. The reactions I got were varied and unexpected in their intensity—I learned a lot about political and personal views of many.
Rosalyn Yalow didn’t mince words: she told me that she had already refused to attend the Pugwash Conference in Warsaw and promised to send her correspondence about the matter. Within a week, I received a brief note and copies of some letters. A letter from Betty Little, Executive Director of the Interfaith Hunger Appeal, dated March 15, 1982, was a response to Yalow’s inquiry “as to delivery of food and medical supplies to the Polish people under today’s conditions.” Betty Little assured Dr. Yalow that help in the form of medical and other supplies was getting through with the assistance of World Church Service, Catholic Relief Services, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It is worth noting that “the relief service needed more support for this private program which had been approved by President Reagan as an exception to the sanctions that the U.S. imposed after the Polish government proclaimed martial law.” Another letter was Rosalyn Yalow’s response to Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, President of the Pugwash Conference (and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964), dated May 3, 1982. Rosalyn Yalow stated:
“I cannot agree with the decision of the Pugwash Council to meet in Warsaw in face of the events of the last few months….I shall read with great interest the communications to the world press to determine if the Pugwash Conference will have the courage to deal realistically with a current urgent problem of the war of a government against its own people… If our ultimate goal is peace and security for mankind, in the West we cannot afford to ignore by our silence, no matter how cleverly worded, the worsening state of a people who have cried out for some control of their own affairs.
There are issues that should be a central part of the Pugwash agenda, including among others: What can the world learn from the experience in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam when the United States withdrew which obtained neither true peace nor freedom?… Why in view of the pessimistic prognostications of the Einstein-Russell Manifesto has a nuclear-armed world maintained an unprecedentedly long period of peace among major powers? Until such issues are considered by the Pugwash Group, I feel that I cannot sign its declaration.”
I think that these documents demonstrate, first and foremost, Rosalyn Yalow’s paramount concern for human welfare, and secondly the political issues involved. As in Dr. Yalow’s scientific work, her thoughts and opinions were clear and unequivocal. Her sincere but realistic interest in helping people in need was demonstrated once again a few years later. In late May 1984, I sought her support and advice regarding a report of the Committee in Support of Solidarity, created in New York by Irena Lasota within days of the imposition of the martial law in Poland (Irena Lasota was one of student opposition leaders in Poland in March 1968, and later a founder of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe, IDEE, which operates to this day from Washington, DC). I wrote:
“…It is a report which summarizes the medical problems faced by the general population and by the medical profession in Poland since the imposition of martial law. Although the report covers 1981-1982, many of the problems persist. I would be very grateful if you could find a few minutes to review this report and let me know if you have any thoughts or suggestions as to the further handling and distribution of this information.”
Rosalyn Yalow replied on June 4, 1984:
“I really believe that the documentation concerning events in Poland will attract little interest among the American people. I note that many who might be supportive are already on your Board of Sponsors. I would like to suggest that you might contact ‘Physicians for Social Responsibility’ with headquarters in Boston. They are organized primarily as anti-nuclear activists but they are physicians and they claim social responsibility….
The fact is that since these events took place several years ago it would no longer be considered ‘News’ particularly in view of the latest ‘amnesty.’ I am sorry to say these things but unfortunately this is the world in which we live.”
The clarity and lack of sentimentality in Rosalyn Yalow’s response struck me as unique and admirable. At the same time, her concern for human welfare was unmistakable. She shared with her colleague Sol Berson a genuinely unselfish vision of the ultimate goals of their research and invention, as quoted by Eugene Straus in his biography of Rosalyn Yalow:
“‘We never thought of patenting RIA,’ Yalow says, looking down her nose as though a dead fish had been placed before her. ‘Of course, others suggested it to us, but patents are about keeping things away from people for the purpose of making money. We wanted others to be able to use RIA. Now some people assume that I’m sorry, but I’m not. Anyway, we had no time for such nonsense.” (In: Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow: Her Life and Work in Medicine, p. 11)
Rosalyn Yalow had a life of outstanding science and great achievement combined with a great interest in family, friends, and the world around her.
Straus E. Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow: Her Life and Work in Medicine. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1998.
MAJA NOWAKOWSKI attended University of Warsaw, Poland, and City College of New York. She earned her Ph.D. degree in Viral Immunology under the mentorship of Barry R. Bloom, Ph.D. and Donald F. Summers, MD, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University (1974). She completed postdoctoral training at Albert Einstein College of Medicine with Barry Bloom (virus-lymphocyte interactions, 1974-75) and SUNY-Stony Brook with Joseph Kates (vaccinia virus molecular biology, 1975-77). She then joined the faculty of SUNY-Downstate Medical Center, where she studied macrophage-influenza virus interactions, macrophage functions in asthma, HIV-1 disease, and regulation of nitric oxide production by macrophages.
Spring 2016 | Sections | Women in Medicine