Turning 2015 has come as a bit of a shock to some of us here at Geek HQ (where did 2014 go?!), and so we’re taking the time to look back at of our favourite features from 2014. We’re finishing off with a favourite Women in Science feature – the story of Yalow and Elion…

“They had to have a war so that I could get a Ph.D. and a job in physics,”
– Rosalyn Sussman Yalow

When you hear the phrase “Female Nobel Laureate”, how many names spring to mind? Many of you might get Marie Curie, and some won’t get any at all – BUT there are a number of Nobel Ladies out there, and Beauty by the Geeks are here to tell you about a few of them! Today, it is our pleasure to introduce you to Rosalyn Sussamn Yalow and Gertrude Elion, winners of Novel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine!

These science-savvy ladies women their prizes quite some time a`go: Rosalyn Sussman Yalow won hers in 1977, with Gertrude Elion close behind in 1988 – they’ve both been heralded for their achievements at a time when science was truly a male-dominated field. In fact, Manhattan-born medical physicist Yalow was the only woman in a faculty of 400 while she was undertaking her doctorate at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urban in the US, and they didn’t even have a ladies toilet for her to use!

Yalow was awarded her prize for her role in developing a technique called radioimmunoassay. This technique uses antibodies (small molecules that form a key part of the normal immune system by binding to foreign molecules like bacterial proteins) to accurately measure concentrations of things like hormones in the blood. It can also be used to detect allergies, as these conditions have an underlying molecular basis in the blood; these can be detected in the same way as hormones like insulin using radioimmunoassay. The technique was crowned a revolution in the fields of blood banking, allergic disease and endocrinology (the branch of medicine concerned with hormones), and earned her rightful place in science history as the second woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology! She was also the first woman ever to win the Albert Lasker Prize for Basic Medical Research. Needless to say, we’re big Yalow fans here at Geek HQ!

Gertrude Elion, a biochemist and pharmacologist, was awarded her prize 11 years after Yalow for the development of a number of drugs – many of which are still used today. Elion’s scientific journey began when she was 15 and her grandfather died of cancer; she is famously quoted to have said “I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much.” Her inventions include 6-mercaptopurine, the first anti-cancer drug used in the treatment of leukaemia, among other agents for treating malaria, gout, meningitis and more! Besides the Nobel Prize, Elion was also awarded the National Medal of Science in 1991, and received many other awards and commendations for her work.

Yalow and Elion’s careers were by no means without their challenges – least of all, they were women in a time of male scientific dominance. Elion herself was told at an interview for a laboratory job that, despite being qualified for the position, she was too pretty and would be too distracting to be given the position. In Nobel Prize Women in Science she stated she’d “almost fallen apart” and that it was “the first time that (she) felt being a woman was a real disadvantage”.

So how did these prize-winning Gal-Geeks make it to the top? Well, mostly by their talent and determination, but there was another big enabling factor: the war. The second world war transformed attitude towards women as they filled positions vacated by men going off to war – this was a crucial chance for aspiring ladies to prove themselves, and pathed the way for the success of many, including Yalow and Elion. “They had to have a war so that I could get a Ph.D. and a job in physics,” Yalow told a biographer called Straus. Whilst it’s encouraging to know that such change can happen, it is deeply saddening that (in the relative light of the 21st century) it took a world at war to embrace this critical shift in opinion.

Yalow and Elion’s legacy lives on in their discoveries and contributions to science, as well as their place on the now-growing list of female Nobel laureates, and we’re happy to see that part of that legacy is to inspire current and future women in science!


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