Diagnostic tests are the first step in any healthcare system but have you ever thought about how these tests came about? We’ve all taken a blood test, a small pinch can give us so much information about our health. There was a time where nobody even knew the actual cause of type II diabetes! All of these were solved by Prof. Rosalyn Yalow who is the pioneer of the field of medical physics! That’s right, medicine and physics. The fusion of two seemingly different subjects brings a new perspective to diagnostics.

Taking inspiration through Marie Curie

Prof. Rosalyn Yalow was born at a time where women pursuing a career in science was just so rare. Most often she was discouraged from doing so but once she read the works of Prof. Marie Curie, she knew what she wanted to do. With a great push and support from her parents, she managed to pursue her education in physics where she graduated with honors.

“The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half of its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us.”

Prof. Rosalyn Yalow

Much like many women graduates at the time, graduate assistantships were not common for them. So, she settled for a job as a secretary at Columbia University. Until much later, she finally managed to get an assistantship and graduate with a PhD in nuclear physics. A degree that even now not many women take up!

Putting radioactivity to good use

After her PhD, she realized that they could use radioactive substances to measure the estimated blood volume. Soon, she diverted her research to the estimation of insulin in blood volume. Her personal motivation was the fact that her husband himself was a diabetic. Since it was an easily available substance, it made the research easily accessible. She tagged radioactive iodine molecules to insulin and injected them into volunteers. She even did it on herself!

Prof. Yalow with her research partner Prof. Solomon Berson
Prof. Yalow with her research partner Prof. Solomon Berson. (Source:

Through this study, they discovered that people with type II diabetes could not metabolize insulin because they produced an antibody that rejected it. It really fueled the science behind insulin production which gave way to the management of the disease. Soon, they used it to tag the antibodies that were responsible for the rejection to learn more about them. They finally called the technique ‘radioimmunoassay‘ where they can measure the quantities of different biological substances even at very low concentrations!

To put it into perspective, the measurement can go as low as down to the billionth of a gram! It allowed them to test over 100 biological substances within the body and the list keeps increasing even in today’s date.

Impact of her discovery

Needless to say that the impact of her discovery can still be felt in today’s day and age. The technique is still widely used all over the world especially in the pharmaceutical industry to measure different drugs and biological substances.

She did not let anybody get in the way of her work and has always maintained that women have additional challenges in the field of science. All they have to do is persevere through it and conquer these challenges. This is something we can all get on board with!


Rosalyn Yalow (2020). Retrieved from

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