As Director of the Program in Jewish Culture & Society, I attended the convocation ceremony for new students at State Farm Center on Friday, August 24th. In his remarks, Chancellor Richard J. Jones highlighted a number of noteworthy students in the history of the university and their accomplishments. Among these, he specifically cited Rosalyn Yalow, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who graduated with a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1945. Yalow attended Illinois in part because it was one of the few places where she—as a woman and a Jew—was allowed to pursue a graduate degree.
I was intrigued. After the ceremony, I conducted a bit of research to find out more about her work, her time at Illinois, and her accomplishments. I learned that after graduating from Hunter College, she was admitted to the College of Engineering in 1941, the only woman among 400 faculty members and teaching fellows. After graduating, she went on to do ground-breaking work on blood chemistry, hormones, and the immune system. In 1977, Dr. Yalow won the Nobel Prize in medicine, becoming only the second woman to earn this distinction.
Throughout her life, Rosalyn Yalow worked to create spaces for gender equality and Jewishness in important ways. After winning the Nobel Prize, she declined an award from the Ladies Home Journal because she wanted women to be recognized for their professional achievements alongside their male colleagues and not singled out separately for their work as women. She hosted a 5-part dramatic series on the work of Marie Curie for PBS. She and her husband, A. Aaron Yalow (fellow physicist and son of a rabbi), raised two children and maintained a Jewish and kosher home.