A Brave Woman

So the other day I read an obituary in the New York Times:
ROSALYN S. YALOW, NOBEL MEDICAL PHYSICIST, DIES AT 89.
… Dr. Yalow was the co-discoverer of a process called: radioimmunoassay, which was, according to The Times, “an extremely sensitive way to measure insulin and other hormones in the blood”. Without going into the details, her discovery led to great advances in the research and treatment of diabetes and various other hormonal diseases.
That discovery, in itself, makes her one of those rare humans who, by virtue of innate genius, great will, and a desire to help her fellow sufferers?on what Clarence Darrow once called ” this graveyard planet”?achieved something truly good in the world.
We can throw most of the Kings, Presidents, Generals and Captains of Industry (save for the ones who actually invented something useful) right into the trash? But to have discovered and made practical a way to save millions of people from terrible suffering and from an early death? Well, that’s about as good as it gets in this world.

But it wasn’t her great discovery that impressed me when I was reading the obituary; it was the fact that Dr. Yalow was the first woman to graduate from Hunter College in New York City (in 1942) with a degree in physics–and she was only nineteen!
This was a time in American life when the only scientific pursuits women were supposed to engage in were devising a formula for turkey stuffing, measuring the viscosity of icing on their child?s birthday cake, or figuring the right amount of detergent per pound of laundry.

Amazing? Not just being the first woman to graduate from Hunter with a physics degree but then facing the most astounding (from a 2011 perspective) obstacles to pursuing her scientific career.
Her parents were poor Jews?one an immigrant from Germany?who moved to the Bronx (a country paradise then) from the slums of New York?s Lower East Side back around the time of World War 1.

After graduating from Hunter, Dr. Yalow applied to Purdue for a graduate assistantship in physics and the university wrote back to her Hunter 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.”
She didn’t get one.

The school found her a job as a secretary at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Hunter told her that, as a woman, she’d never get into graduate school in physics. They told her that if she was?as Dr. Yalow later termed it??a “good girl”, she might be allowed to take some courses at Columbia.
During WW2, with a lot of the men gone, she got a break; she was given an assistantship in The College of Engineering at The University of Illinois where she was the only women among 400 faculty and teaching assistants!

And it goes on from there… When she got an A-minus her lab work course, the chairman of the department told her that was proof that a women could never excell in lab work. (You have to hope that the guy was still around in 1972 to watch her accept the Nobel Prize).
After completing her work at Illinois, she relocated to a Veteran?s Administration hospital in The Bronx where she began the research that led to her discoveries.

So– Dr. Rosalyn Yalow. Rest in peace.

This obituary makes me sad because my mother, if she’d lived, would have been 90 this past weekend and she too graduated from Hunter at the age of 19?just one year before Rosalyn Yalow.
Hunter was a big school, but not that big. I imagine that my mother, Ruthie, and Rosalyn knew each other?maybe sat together in the cafeteria, gossiped about a professor, talked about what they wanted to do with their lives after they graduated.

…So, for Dr. Yalow, The Nobel Prize. And for my mother?another young, female, Jewish genius from New York?
Well, she got married, had two kids, then fell into a pit of mental illness which she never pulled out of. She wound up killing herself when she was only 56 years old.
My mother loved history (her major at Hunter). She might have been a history teacher, maybe a professor; or even a writer of great history books. But instead she got trapped in a lower-middle class suburb with a family she was never equipped to handle, got progressively more depressed and deluded and spent the rest of her life just trying to survive her own personal hell.
Well, that’s an old, sad story… but when I read about the exploits of my mother?s former schoomate, Dr. Yalow, I thought how brave my mother was too?living as long as she did with her relentless demons, getting up every day, taking care of the house, taking care?as best she could?of her children.
I think of her amazing intellect and energy buried under a mountain of fear and suppressed by the reigning American attitude toward women when I was a kid in the Forties; cook, clean, take care your husband and your kids. Whatever else you might want?it?s not going to happen, so just forget about it and light the stove for dinner.

Well, Rosalyn Yalow faced the same prejudices but she prevailed.
Just contemplate the sheer guts of the woman. To swim against that Gulf Stream current of arrogance and bigotry (forget the Jewish part?that was bad enough. I remember my father, who was of this same vintage, telling me that as an engineering student he was lucky he could go to New York’s City College?they weren’t taking too many Jews at MIT and Stanford in those days).
But to be a woman and persevere in a field populated almost exclusively by men. To prove their misogynistic assumptions wrong day after day, for years. To endure all sorts of insults, some of them delivered, no doubt, straight to her face?and to come through all that having achieved something positive and good in the world. (And she was married and had children too. …Upon this rock!).

The wheel turns, history seems to advance–if it’s not just an optical illusion. Women don’t have to prove themselves (generally) now the way they did just a few decades ago. But when you read about a woman like that, you shake your head in wonder and admiration–and you get a good jolt of sobriety contemplating the strange mixture of fear and rage men have always had toward women.

So, hat’s off to Dr. Yalow, men. Eye?s right- as she passes by… A former nineteen-year-old Jewish girl from New York is being laid to rest? Take five?then lock and load. We’ve got another political campaign to rig, another war to fight and a lot more homes to foreclose on.

– Mike Feder (New York City – June 7, 2011)

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