Looking for a leading lady?

Women scientists capture the imagination

J. L. Greger 14 February 2012

Heroic: Marie Curie

They responded to the call of the unknown world of scientific research, faced many challenges, but endured

March is National Women’s History Month – a good time to remember the women scientists of the first eighty years of the twentieth century.

Why would readers of care? You can learn a lot from scientists of our not-so-distant past. Many of these pioneering women are great prototypes for heroines in novels and screenplays. The lives of these women often fit the pattern of narrative known as the ‘hero’s journey’: they responded to the call of the unknown world of scientific research, faced many challenges, but endured. Finally, these heroines will make you appreciate more your current work environment.

So are you ready to meet potential leading ladies for your next novel?

First, there’s Marie Curie. She won two Nobel Prizes (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911) and was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne. Yet the French press persecuted her because of an affair with Paul Langevin, a prominent scientist in his own right – never mind that she was a widow at the time of the affair.

Sources of information on Marie Curie are plentiful, including Madame Curie: A Biography by her daughter, the journalist and writer Eve Curie. You might be able to sell a fictionalized screenplay on Marie Curie because Hollywood producers seem to like to remake successful movies (Madame Curie, 1943). Meryl Streep with her famous accents would be perfect as this superwoman.

Rosalind Franklin helped to define the fine molecular structures of DNA, RNA, and viruses with her meticulous X-ray crystallography. Watson and Crick used her X-ray diffraction images of DNA when formulating the structure of DNA. If she had not died at thirty-seven years of age in 1958, many wonder if she, rather than Maurice Wilkins, would have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Watson and Crick in 1962.

If you want a tragic heroine, consult her biographies (Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox or Rosalind Franklin and DNA) and not the patronizing portrayal of her by James Watson in The Double Helix. Natalie Portman is a likely candidate to play this petite, much-maligned heroine.

Perhaps you’d like a more modern heroine. In total, fifteen women have won Nobel Prizes in the physical and biological sciences; five won the award since 2000. Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon B. McGrayne and the Nobel website are sources of information on these women.

Or maybe you envision a girl-next-door as your leading lady. The lives of two women professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison might fit the bill. If nothing else, their biographies will supply examples of the “small” annoyances that add color to a story.

Elizabeth McCoy lived on her family’s historic farm near Madison, Wisconsin for most of her life. Her colleagues reported that she “studied seemingly everything in the microbiological universe,” including antibiotic production, nitrogen fixation in the root nodules of leguminous bacteria, and commercial fermentations. In 1946 the New York Times ran this headline “Wisconsin University Girl Wins Patent on an Industrial Solvent.” At that time, the “girl” had won numerous awards, was 43 years old, and was only the second woman (outside those in nursing or home economics) to achieve a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. No one reported her response, but she was known for her salty vocabulary.

McCoy was not a wimp. For example, even in her seventies she continued to shovel the snow from her 150-foot lane during the long Wisconsin winters (Wisconsin Acad Rev 24[3]:3-6, 1978). Jane Lynch of “Glee” resembles the lean, independent McCoy.

The second Wisconsinite Hellen Linkswiler was more ladylike than McCoy. She conducted research on the human requirements for calcium and vitamin B-6, served on the Committee on Dietary Allowances of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council (that’s the committee that creates the RDAs - Recommended Dietary Allowances), and was the first non-physician woman elected to an office in the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. As a child in Oklahoma during the “dust bowl” years, she ate moldy bread because there was no other food. In 1960 the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered her an annual salary of $12,000 as a full professor. (There were no laws requiring equal pay for equal work yet.) At that time, a banker refused her a mortgage for a home unless a man cosigned the loan. Her father, who was totally financially dependent on her, cosigned the loan.

Michelle Williams without the makeup she wore in My Week with Marilyn has the right soft features to portray Hellen. For more details consult a biography I wrote (Journal of Nutrition 132:333-4, 2002).

Finding the biographies of less famous woman scientists in the United States during the first eighty years of the twentieth century can be challenging. Often the best sources of their biographies are university archives and the biographies of “fellows’” in the Journal of Nutrition because nutrition was one of the few scientific fields in which women regularly became professors before 1960. You’ll be amazed, uplifted, and sometimes saddened by the stories of the leading ladies in science.

Related information:

Oak Tree Press will publish J. L. Greger’s medical suspense novel Coming Flu in July 2012. The epidemiologist Sara Almquist in the novel is an amalgam of a number of women scientists, who the author met during her 35-year career as a scientist and research administrator.

Other articles by J. L. Greger