June 02, 2011

"She is from New York. She's Jewish. She is a woman"

Harold Pollack

There are many good reasons to fork over the cash and support the New York Times. The obituary section is one of those reasons.

Today's Times includes a nicely-written obituary of the biophysicist Rosalyn Yalow. She was only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in medicine for her contributions to endocrinology.

This story is remarkable for many reasons. Not least it illustrates the amazing gender (and religious) discrimination she was able to overcome:

At Walton High School in the Bronx, she wrote, a “great” teacher had excited her interest in chemistry...

Her interests gravitated to physics after she read Eve Curie’s 1937 biography of her mother, Marie Curie, a two-time Nobel laureate for her research on radioactivity....

She went on to Hunter College, becoming its first physics major and graduating with high honors at only 19. After she applied to Purdue University for a graduate assistantship to study physics, the university wrote back to her professor: “She is from New York. She is Jewish. She is a woman. If you can guarantee her a job afterward, we’ll give her an assistantship.”

No guarantee was possible, and the rejection hurt, Dr. Yalow told an interviewer. “They told me that as a woman, I’d never get into graduate school in physics,” she said, “so they got me a job as a secretary at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and promised that, if I were a good girl, I would take courses there.” The college is part of Columbia University.

Incidentally, she was one of two woman graduates of the same public high school (Walton) in the Bronx to win this prize. That's 20 percent of all women to win the medicine prize. That pioneering generation of Jewish women was (and is) pretty awesome in breaking down many barriers.