Dr.Summers VS. a Mme. Curie From the Bronx
By Professor Michael C. GeokasThe storm unleashed last January by Dr. Lawrence Summers, the Harvard President, by remarks at a conference on “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Work Force”, should have been avoided. A bit of research would have shown that Marie Curie, disproved a century ago the view of biological differences between the sexes, “as impediment to careers in mathematics and science”. She received two Nobel Prizes for her work in radioactivity. I will describe one more example of a woman scientist, who super-achieved in science by brainpower, coupled with tenacity and unwavering persistence towards her goal. I do believe that this scientific Cinderella story of a career in Nuclear Physics constitutes in effect a more recent, and sharp refutation of innate differences between the sexes, about careers in mathematics and science. This is a first hand, fascinating story of Rosalyn S. Yalow,Ph.D. the first American woman to share with two others the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1977. By the seventh grade Rosalyn was committed to mathematics. An outstanding teacher in High School excited her interest in chemistry, but at Hunter College (now City University of New York) her love was diverted to Physics. When as College junior in 1939, she was hanging from the rafters of Pupin Laboratories at Columbia, to hear a lecture by Enrico Fermi describing nuclear fission, which provided not only nuclear weapons but also radioisotopes for medical and other research, it was for her a catalytic event. She wanted a career in physics, whereas her family thought more about a position as elementary school teacher. However, most graduate schools would not accept and offer financial support for a woman in physics. Yet she persisted and became part time secretary to a famous Biochemist, as a back door entry point to graduate courses, but only under the proviso that she would agree to learn stenography.
After graduation from Hunter in 1941 Rosalyn received an offer as teaching assistant in physics at the University of Illinois, an enormous achievement at the time. Yet, at the first College of Engineering faculty meeting Rosalyn was the only woman among 400 men, the first woman since 1917, the faculty Dean said, offering his congratulations. First day in graduate school she met Aaron Yalow, a graduate student in physics who became her husband in 1943. She took additional courses in Physics receiving an A in two of them and an A- in optics laboratory, prompting the Department Chairman to say, the A- confirms that women do not do well at laboratory work. She maintained a heavy teaching load, had graduate courses to take, an experimental thesis to write, with long hours in the laboratory, plus wartime housekeeping with rationing, and yet she received a Ph.D. in Nuclear physics in 1945, under the direction of Dr.Maurice Coldhaber who later became Director of Brookhaven National Laboratories. After a teaching stint at Hunter College she joined the Bronx VA Medical Center and her extraordinary journey took a fateful turn into Medical Physics and Radioisotopes. There, she met in 1950, a brilliant and eventually famous physician Dr.Solomon A. Berson, beginning a 22 year partnership until he died suddenly in April 1972 from a heart attack in his hotel room at a medical meeting, after having served as Chairman of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical School, for four years.
Rosalyn learned a lot of Medicine by osmosis from Dr. Berson, and by reading avidly, which was crucial for her ongoing research.
Rosalyn and Aaron had two children, a son now a systems programmer and a daughter an educational psychologist, Stanford University graduate. They brought up their children with sleep-in help until their son was 9 and part-time help thereafter. It took several years of intensive research for Rosalyn for developing the famous methodology of Radioimunoassay (RIA), which with its progeny of methods has produced a revolution in modern Medicine. It started with assay of Insulin in blood and is now used for hundreds of substances all over the world even in poor countries. However, with the death of Dr. Berson in 1972 many in the US research elite automatically assumed that with the “genius” now gone, Rosalyn would be unable to achieve. Yet, Rosalyn persisted, with sustained determination in her work, sometimes spending 100 hours per week on the job. She received the Albert Lasker Basic Science Research Award, and shared the Nobel Prize in 1977, in Medicine or Physiology, which in turn produced an avalanche of other recognitions and speaking engagements, to Universities, Professional Societies and Medical Centers.
Her reputation as superscientist, supermother and superwife grew steadily. I still remember the standing ovations from big audiences, predominantly of men and of some women physician-scientists whose specialized patient care was revolutionized by this brilliant Nuclear Physicist woman. Elizabeth Stone in NY Times Magazine of April 9, 1978 described that: “they were able to measure a substance never before measurable-the body’s own insulin. This was like identifying a teaspoon of sugar in a lake 62 miles long, 62 miles wide and 30 feet deep”. The impact of Yalow’s revolution on improving health care and saving lives, has been enormous. Thus, Rosalyn Yalow has disproved that innate differences exist between the sexes for a career in science. The differences exist, but between individuals of both sexes, as related to their brain power and amount of determination. Dr. Summers has apologized several times since that fateful Conference and was censured by his Faculty of Arts and Sciences on March 15th, which constitutes a symbolic act because only the Harvard Corporation has the authority to dismiss him.
However his mistake of downgrading the abilities of women, in effect of over 50% of the population, has enormous relevance for the low fertility countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, to name but a few. The women of these and of all other societies on this planet, including our own, represent the biggest and so far, only partially or completely utilized reservoir of energy and it behooves all of them to strongly encourage and recruit their capable, ambitious and talented women into studies of methematics, science and engineering. Specifically, this additional human capital will be crucial for a much-needed technological revolution especially in poor countries. Thus, to all brilliant young American and all other women of today, I say this: if you have the brains, the burning ambition and the tenacity and you can also espouse a bit of a steel-magnolia attitude in your life, then, go for it, in mathematics, one of the sciences or engineering, and chances are, you will succeed.
Michael C. Geokas,M.D.,M.Sc.,Ph.D.