Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about queer people, writers, artists, Renaissance women, Medieval women, 18th-century people, and pirate women who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.
This post is inspired by my trying and failing to watch a couple black-and-white biopics of historical women in the sciences and being underwhelmed. 1943’s Madame Curie stars Greer Garson as the double Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist, but the flick was really hard to get into because it focuses so much more on Marie and Pierre Curie’s romance than on the science and the fact that Marie Curie was brilliant in her own right. The other move that disappointed me was 1952’s The Girl in White (that title is so very 1950s, amirite?). Starring June Allyson, this is about Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer, the world’s first female ambulance surgeon and the first woman to secure a surgical residency. Again, it’s more about her romance with her soon-to-be husband than her medical career. MEH.
Yeah, those films were definitely products of their times, and I guess that was the best they could do. Any attempt to show women being something other than just homemaker moms was a step up back then. But today, we’ve seen the huge box-office success of Hidden Figures (2016), which put women writing equations front and center, and romance in the far background. So c’mon, let’s get some more historical movies and TV series about women in the sciences going! Here are just a few to get Hollywood and the Powers That Be started (but a new Marie Curie frock flick wouldn’t be amiss).
Merit-Ptah, c. 2,700 B.C.E
Ancient Egypt was fairly advanced when it came to both medicine and women’s status. Merit-Ptah is the world’s first female doctor known by name, but records suggest that the medical school in the Temple of Neith at Sais in Lower Egypt was run by an unknown woman, c. 3,000 B.C.E. Merit-Ptah was the royal court’s chief physician during the Second Dynasty. Not much is know about her, but inscriptions on tombs in Saqqara indicate she was a teacher and supervised other physician, including men. Medicine at the time was a mix of science and spiritual practice, and both genders took part in elaborate procedures and rituals around healing, birth, and death. A movie or TV miniseries about Merit-Ptah and an Egyptian medical school would break fertile new ground for fascinating stories.
Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711-1778)
This physicist was the first woman to earn a professorship in physics at a university in Europe and a university chair in the sciences, all at the University of Bologna. However, she was not allowed to lecture in public at the university, so she had to teach private classes at home. Bassi had the unique support of her husband, a fellow lecturer and doctor of philosophy and medicine, Giuseppe Veratti. She said of their marriage: “I have chosen a person who walks the same path of learning, and who from long experience, I was certain would not dissuade me from it.” They set up a laboratory in their home where Bassi could study and teach experimental physics and Newtonian science, authoring 28 papers. Over time, she petitioned the university for the highest salary of 1,200 lire. She accomplished this while bearing 12 children, five of whom survived to adulthood. In 1776, at the age of 65, Bassi was named Chair and Institute Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Bologna, with her husband as her assistant. This is a woman who had it all — a fascinating career, an egalitarian marriage, a full family life — in a time period when women weren’t encouraged to think beyond the family.
Ada Lovelace, aka Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852)
The only child of Lord Byron and his wife Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke, Ada was taught math and science at an early age. When she was 17 (before she’d married the Earl of Lovelace), Ada met mathematics professor Charles Babbage. He had been working on an early computer, which he called the Difference Engine, to perform mathematical calculations. The pair would become lifelong friends. Ada analyzed Babbage’s work and theorized ways to extend it, writing an article that explained how the machine could repeat a series of looped instructions — and, in essence, she became the first computer programmer. Her work was influential to later computer inventors and programmers, such as Alan Turing in the 1940s.
Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857) and Mary Anning (1799-1847)
These women, along with Elizabeth’s sisters Louise and Margaret, collected and studied fossils, especially from the cliffs around Lyme Regis on the southern coast of England. Thanks to the Philpot sisters tutelage, Anning discovered several of the most complete Ichthyosaur fossils that had yet been found at the time, as well as the first complete Plesiosaurus fossil and first British pterosaurs fossil. These caused quite a sensation, in this pre-Darwin era when most of the British population accepted a Biblical explanation of species creation. Elizabeth and Mary collaborated on their collections and wrote to many of the major geologists of the period, who recognized their work an even named several fossil fish species after them. We might someday see a movie about Philpot and Anning because the rights to Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Remarkable Creatures about these women was purchased in 2010, although I haven’t found anything recent the prospective film.
Harvard’s Female ‘Computers,’ 1877-1920s
Previously, I wrote about these people on our Patreon blog, but I couldn’t help revisiting them because their stories are just so amazing. Edward Pickering was director of the Harvard College Observatory, and he had 80 women working as ‘computers’ doing calculations for the astronomical data. One of the first was Williamina Fleming, who was Pickering’s housemaid and a Scottish immigrant, a single mother, abandoned by her husband. She discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888! There were women like Annie Jump Cannon, both a physicist and a suffragette. And you can’t forget Mary Anna Palmer Draper, wealthy widow of astronomer Henry Draper, who was the major patron of the Harvard Observatory. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, so many women made significant contributions to the field of astronomy that it’d be fantastic to pick out some of these storylines for a lengthy miniseries.
Who are some scientists — especially women — who you’d like to see in historical movies or TV?