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The Other Insulin Story of 1921

Aug 5, 2011

The year 1921 was an important year as far as insulin was concerned. A dedicated team of scientists led by Banting and Best discovered the hormone which won them the Nobel Prize, offering hope to millions of people with diabetes. The year is still remembered worldwide by people involved in diabetes and its management….

Also in 1921, a baby girl was born in New York City to two European migrants, Clara Zipper and Simon Sussman. Later, she would grow up and marry Aaron Yalow. She would soon be called Dr. Rosalyn Yalow, the Nobel Prize winning phenomenon, and a person as close to the tag of the "Mother of Endocrinology" as anyone could ever claim to be.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by eulogies on Dr. Rosalyn Yalow. She was a woman scientist in a field dominated by men. She changed the science and practice of medicine, particularly endocrinology. Born of European migrants, she fought her way to success. She devised the radioimmunoassay and led the scientists of the world toward accurate hormone measurement. The first hormone to be measured was insulin, the same hormone that was discovered in the year of her birth.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, she won several other honors: Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award; A. Cressy Morrison Award in Natural Sciences of the N.Y. Academy of Sciences; Scientific Achievement Award of the American Medical Association; Koch Award of the Endocrine Society; Gairdner Foundation International Award; American College of Physicians Award for distinguished contributions in science as related to medicine; Eli Lilly Award of the American Diabetes Association; and First William S. Middleton Medical Research Award of the VA and five honorary doctorates.

Dr. Rosalyn Yalow and her collaborator, Dr. Solomon Berson, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977 for the discovery of the radioimmunoassay. The radioimmunoassay, which led to the creation of bigger and better assays, ushered in a revolution in the measurement of hormones.

What was the secret of Dr. Yalow’s success? And what is the impact of her research on the world?

What led Dr. Yalow to such amazing success? Well, her short autobiography, published on the Nobel Prize Web site, offers a glimpse. "Through the years my mother has told me that it was fortunate that I chose to do acceptable things, for if I had chosen otherwise, no one could have deflected me from my path," wrote Dr. Yalow. She also called herself a "stubborn, determined child." Possibly, therein lay the secret of her triumph over adversity and her path to success. Determination and persistence is the key to any researcher achieving their dream.

Finally, what has been the impact of Dr Yalow’s work? She measured the first hormone. She found a way to measure insulin. Dr. Yalow led the path for the scientists of the world to measure peptide levels. In other words, her discovery meant that doctors could now measure their patient’s hormone levels and thus, her work has been critical in helping us diagnose endocrine disease and hormone dysfunction.

In addition to being a top researcher, Dr. Yalow trained a large number of researchers from across the world. Many of them became masters of investigative endocrinology in places all over the world, compounding her success further. Among these masters is Dr. N Kochupilai who became a leading figure in the field of endocrine research in India. In a paper he coauthored with Dr. Yalow in 1978, he describes the purification, preparation, and stability of thyroid hormones. [1] This work became the forerunner to TSH testing and detection. Eventually, his group championed the effective tackling of iodine deficiency disorders in India and the developing world.

Four years ago on May 30, 2011, Dr. Rosalyn Yalow passed away. She was 89 years old. We hope that her story inspires future generations of researchers to greatness.


  1. Kochupillai N, Yalow R. Preparation, purification, and stability of high specific activity 125I-labeled thyronines. Endocrinology 1978;102:128-35.

From an editorial by Ambika Gopalakrishnan Unnikrishnan, Sanjay Kalra, Manash Baruah, Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Jul-Sep 2011, Vol 15, Issue 3