Famous Women Scientists and Nobel Laureates From the Second Part of the 20th Century

By Sandor Szabo, MD, PhD, MPH, Founding Dean and Professor, School of Medicine

As we celebrate March being the ‘History of Women’, it’s worth recalling the most outstanding female biomedical scientists who received the highest decorations and most prestigious awards in Stockholm, Sweden.

One is Rosalyn Yalow, PhD who was a “pioneer in nuclear medicine” who received the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 1977, “for the development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones” (1, 2), along with Drs. Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally who worked feverishly on the isolation of hypothalamic releasing hormones. The Nobel website (2) briefly summarizes her personal & professional life: “Rosalyn Yalow was a stubborn and single-minded child. Her parents wanted her to become a schoolmistress, but instead they became a physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Rosalyn Yalow grew up in and lived almost her entire life in New York. Her parents came from humble backgrounds, but that did not stop Rosalyn and her brother, Alexander, from striving for something greater. Rosalyn began to read before she began preschool. Her 7th-grade chemistry teacher aroused her interest in science, and when at university, she took a liking to nuclear physics… Rosalyn Yalow was a nuclear physicist. She developed radioimmunoassay (RIA) together with Dr. Solomon Berson. RIA is used to measure small concentrations of substances in the body, such as hormones in the blood. Yalow and Berson tracked insulin by injecting radioactive iodine into patients’ blood. Because the method is so precise, they were able to prove that type 2 diabetes is caused by the body’s inefficient use of insulin. Previously it was thought that the disease was caused by a lack of insulin.” Unfortunately, Dr. Berson died before he could get the Nobel prize. Dr. Yalow was a very modest woman, who worked almost exclusively at the VA Medical Center in Bronx, NY, and in that capacity (since I also spent 20 years in the VA system), I had the pleasure of meeting her once, in part because we also used several RIA methods to measure the concentration of many hormones that have large-enough molecules to develop antibodies against them.

The other famous woman, also Nobel laureate is Rita Levi-Montalcini, MD. Namely, the 1986 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology was shared by Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen for “discoveries of fundamental importance in understanding the mechanisms that regulate the growth of cells and organs” (4).  She was born in 1909, in Turin, Italy. Her mother was an artist, and her father was an electrical engineer. Rita added her mother’s name (Montalcini) to her surname (Levi) when she began her professional career. In 1936, Levi-Montalcini received her MD degree from the University of Turin, and in 1940, she received a degree for specialization in neurology and psychiatry from the same institution (4). In 1947, Dr. Levi-Montalcini went to Washington University in St Louis, MO, to work with embryologist Viktor Hamburger (1900-2001), who was studying the growth of nerve tissue in chick embryos. In 1948, she and Hamburger identified nerve growth factor (NGF), the first of many cell-growth factors discovered in the bodies of animals. In 1953, American biologist and zoologist Stanley Cohen, PhD joined her at Washington University, and they continued the work on NGF. Dr. Cohen purified NGF, determined its chemical nature, and produced NGF antibodies. He also discovered another growth factor, epidermal growth factor (EGF) (4).  Since EGF also plays a role in ulcer development and protection of gastroduodenal mucosa, he was the keynote speaker at an international conference on the pathogenesis of gastroduodenal ulceration shortly after he received the Nobel prize and I, among others, spent many hours of productive conversations with Dr. Cohen at that meeting at the beautiful seaside resort in Antalya, Turkey.

The discovery of NGF and EGF opened the field to subsequent discoveries of several peptide growth factors, such as FGF (fibroblast growth factor), PDGF (platelet-derived growth factor), and VPF/VEGF (vascular permeability factor/vascular endothelial growth factor). Since these factors, especially FGF, PDGF and VPF/VEGF play a major role in the molecular mechanisms of gastroduodenal ulceration, we investigated these peptides both in biochemical and pharmacologic experiments in my laboratory during the last about 30 years.

Thus, these two famous women were not only creative scientists, but trailblazers to open the door to many female researchers who followed them in the second part 20th century and at the beginning of 21st century.  My research laboratories in Boston and in SoCal also reflected this trend, since I always had an almost equal number male and female coworkers that is reflected in our scientific publications (5-10).


  1. Kyle RA, Shampo MA. Rosalyn Yalow-Pioneer in nuclear medicine. Mayo Clin. Proc.,2002;77 (1):4.
  2. Nobel Prizes https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1977/yalow/lecture/
  3. Szabo, S., Tache, Y., Somogyi, A. The legacy of Hans Selye and the origins of stress research: A retrospective 75 years after his landmark “letter” in Nature. Stress, 2012;15(5):472–478.
  4. Shampo MA, Kyle RA. Rita Levi-Montalcini-Nobel Prize for Work in Neurology. Mayo Clin. Proc., 2003;78 (12):1448-1449.
  5. Folkman J, Szabo S, Stovroff M. McNeil P, Li W, Shing Y. Duodenal ulcer: discovery of a new mechanism and development of angiogenic therapy that accelerates healing.  Surg. 1991; 214:414-426.
  6. Stovroff M, Vattay P, Marino B, Szabo S, Folkman J. Healing of experimental gastritis by oral fibroblast growth factor. Surg. Forum 1991; 42:174-175.
  7. Szabo S, Folkman J, Vattay P, Morales RE, Pinkus GS, Kato K. Accelerated healing of duodenal ulcers by oral administration of a mutein of basic fibroblast growth factor in rats.  Gastroenterology 1994; 106:1106-1111.
  8. Szabo S, Vincze A, Sandor Z, Jadus M, Gombos Z, Pedram A, Levin E, Hagar J, Iaquinto G. Vascular approach to gastroduodenal ulceration: new studies with endothelins and VEGF.   Dis. Sci. 1998;4 3:40S-45S.
  9. Deng XD, Szabo S, Jadus MR, Khomenko T, Yoshida M, Herlyn M, Nesbit M, Matsumoto H, Florsheim WH. Gene therapy with naked DNA or adenoviral vector of VEGF or PDGF increases endogenous VEGF, PDGF and bFGF expression and accelerates chronic duodenal ulcer healing in rats. J. Pharmacol. Exp. Ther. 2004; 311:982-988.
  10. Tolstanova G, Deng XM, French S, Lungo W, Paunovic B, Khomenko T, Ahluwalia A, Kaplan T, Dacosta-Iyer M, Tarnawski A, Szabo S, Sandor Zs. Early endothelial damage and increased colonic vascular permeability in the development of experimental ulcerative colitis in rats and mice. Lab. Invest. 2012; 92:9-21.

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