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?
Yes! I’m an electrical engineer and historical fashion lover here. Please, more historical dramas about women in science!
And bonus points if they get a consultant for the film/miniseries who is an actual scientist.
Hidden Figures was really great. Even in that though, there were a very few lines I winced at, thinking, “That line was not written by someone who does a lot of math.”
Like Paul Stafford (I just called him “Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory” in my head the whole movie) saying, “but that method’s ancient!” Hmm, really? Cause math gets… what? Out of date? The electrical engineering formulas I use today are generally the same as when they were written in the 1800s… New engineering research is always finding new applications for old models.
Still, Hidden Figures was so very my kind of movie. Let’s make more!
Hidden Figures wasn’t perfect, but it’s strong proof that women as scientists (& not just love interests) can sell a movie.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) – I know there’s a new documentary, but her story could also stand dramatization.
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848) – she and her brother were both noted astronomers, but her specialty was finding comets.
We have a Woman Crush Wednesday on Hedy Lamarr bec. she’s just so awesome, & yeah, she deserves both documentaries & fictional accounts!
Yes! I’d love to see a biopic on Hedy Lamarr!
I agree with Hedy Lamarr.
Also like to add Clara Barton who started the American Red Cross.
Some are repeats but any one of the following would be good. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ten-historic-female-scientists-you-should-know-84028788/
Ada Lovelace features in one episode of season two of Victoria; but I could have used more of her! Yes please, to all of the above!
I third Hedy Lamarr. Rosalind Franklin needs her own movie too, with Watson and Crick relegated as far away as possible. Off the top of my head, Maria Mitchell and Hypatia of Alexandria too.
A trip to Wikipedia gave me some other names. Engineer Nie Li, the first woman Lieutenant General of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Xie Xide was a physicist. She studied at MIT in the late 1940s-early 50s, which could not have been easy.
I forgot to add Frances Glessner Lee, a pioneer in forensic science. Think of the scenes of her making period clothes at 1:12 scale!
Lee’s ‘Nutshell Studies’ are currently on display at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC see https://americanart.si.edu/press/2017/25/new-exhibition-murder-her-hobby-frances-glessner-lee-and-nutshell-studies-unexplained
Seconding Ada Lovelace.
Marie-Anne Lavoisier translated and corrected latin chemistry texts into French and helped define the scientific method, although I suppose translating Latin into French wouldn’t make for a very exciting movie.
There’s also Hypatia, a Greek astronomer who is said to have thrown her menstrual rags at a man who interrupted her public lecture to flirt with her, although how true that is is up for debate.
There is a film called Agora, starring Rachael Weisz, which came out in 2009 about Hypatia. I have never seen it, but apparently it is good and mostly historically accurate.
Kendra reviewed Agora here & loved it!
Maybe they should do a movie in Curie’s WWI work — she put together a fleet of mobile x-ray machines*, trained herself, her teenaged daughter, and a number of other volunteers in anatomy, and went out to the battlefields.
*with assistance from Winneretta Singer, one of the heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune.
This person. With added bonus of being French and in the eighteenth century.
Mary Edwards Walker, who was an abolitionist, prohibitionist, doctor, and POW during the American Civil War and is the only woman to (posthumously) receive the Medal of Honor.
There is a movie that is kind of about Ada Lovelace. But it’s weirdly experimental and incredibly dated, so not even casting Tilda Swinton as Ada saves it.
Yep – I saw that at a film festival & mentioned in in my Tilda Swinton WCW. Really need a proper Ada Lovelace movie or miniseries!
Dorothy Hodgkin. Pioneered analysis of protein structure by crystallography and won the Nobel prize.
Lise Meitner! Helped discover nuclear fission, but was left out of the Nobel prize from 1944, which was awarded to Otto Hahn, her collaborator.
Otto Hahn got the Nobel for the year 1944 but was actually awarded it after 1945. (Guess why it was backdated?) If Meitner really wanted that prize then I don’t want a movie about her.
There is a newer film made of Marie Curie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5705058/
It was an ok film, although still quite focused on her affairs with men, rather than on the science. Still, you might want to check it out!
I’ve always thought Mary Edwards’ story would be interesting. She was 1 of 35 human computers (and the only woman) for the British nautical almanac during the 1770s to 1815.
Mary Anning should be a household name. There is a great book about her by Shelley Emling called ‘The Fossil Hunter.’
I’ve never heard about Merit-Ptah! Excited to do some research!
Two female physicians that could use wider exposure:
•Susan La Flesche Picotte, MD
First Native American physician in the United States (received her medical degree before the much more famous Charles Eastman, MD who was part of the Dakota Nation). La Flesche Picotte was a member of the Omaha Nation and practiced Western medicine on the Omaha Reservation here in Nebraska (Omaha is named after the Omaha Nation). She’s an incredible woman that campaigned for better treatment of Native Americans. In addition to her social justice advocacy.
•Maria Montessori, MD
First woman in Italy to become a physician. Initially she wanted to be an engineer so entered an all boys school to assist her in her dream. She stumbled on what makes her famous, observing children and basing her learning/educational model on what she saw. Poor children ran around, unsupervised, so she took the opportunity to observe these children and realised children were naturally more open during certain periods of time in their development. That’s how the “Montessori Method” came into being.
Ooh, a Maria Montessori movie would be interesting! It could show her in her studies and then her research and travels.
I just came across Mrs. Mary Somerville. She was Ada Lovelace’s mathematics tutor. Apparently, they would discuss math calculations over tea.
Admiral Grace Hopper — she was one of the pioneers in the early days of computers. I portrayed her at a Women In Science evening, with this introduction:
My name is Grace Murray Hopper. After more than ten years as a mathematics professor at Vassar College, I joined the U.S. Navy during World War II, to work on some of the earliest computers. Those computers were enormous. The IBM Mark I computer was eight feet high, two feet deep and 51 feet long. I once solved a computer problem by climbing inside the computer, to remove a moth that had stopped a mechanical relay — the first recorded instance of ‘debugging’ a computer!
Programming those computers was difficult, too. All programs were written in binary – ones and zeros – with different numbers representing commands like ‘add’ or ‘subtract’. I thought that programs should be written in an English-like language, though I was told ‘don’t even try — computers will never understand English’. So I did it anyway. “It’s always easier to apologize than to ask permission.” The compiler I created eventually became the COBOL language – still used in mainframe business computers around the world, sixty years later.
“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ’em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.”
I retired from the Navy in 1986, as a Rear Admiral.
(Everything in double quotes is a direct quotation by Grace Hopper.)
I would like to include Émilie du Châtelet. In some films maybe she played a minorrole (I don’t know). Unfortunately in many films Voltaire is a puppet (in “Mein Name ist Bach” for example) and not the genius he actualy was.
I would like to see something about Dorothea Erxleben (first German doctor) too. The Story of Dorothea Schlözer would be mostly too sad for the cinema and not entertaining enough.