Arguably, the two most famous women nuclear scientists are Marie Curie and Dr. Christmas Jones. The former was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska and won two Nobel prizes. The latter was a "Bond Girl," a nuclear physicist played by Denise Richards in "The World Is Not Enough."
There have always been far more women in the fields of nuclear science and energy in real life than in fiction. Indeed, women have been major figures in the field since the very beginning. Madame Curie was even the one to coin the term, "radioactive." Ironically, as the Bond movie was being filmed, the Chairman post of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) passed from nuclear physicist Shirley Ann Jackson1 (Figure 3) to radiation biologist Greta Joy Dicus2 (Figure 4).
Nor was Dr. Jackson the first woman top nuclear regulator. Dr. Dixy Lee Ray headed the Atomic Energy Commission (the forerunner to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) from 1973 - 1975. Going even further back in time reveals another historical footnote. Nuclear reactions release energy in accordance with Albert Einstein's famous:
e = mc^2 (e = energy, m = mass, andc = speed of light)
That equation, however, is but a genius-level extrapolation of an earlier one:
kinetic energy = 1/2 mv^2 (m = mass and v = velocity)
Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil (1706 - 1749) was one of the first champions of differentiating momentum (mv) from kinetic energy by using the square of the velocity in its calculations. Her translation (and commentary explaining those views) of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica containing Newton's "Laws of Motion" remains the standard French translation. Thus, a woman played a major role in the derivation of the basic equation explaining nuclear energy.
Fiction, however, lagged badly in featuring women in the roles of scientists or engineers. In the early years, there were more women science fiction (SF) authors than fictional scientists. For example, two of the earliest SF novels were Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) and both were written by women3. Sadly, the societal norms were so rigid4 that not even those woman authors included woman scientists among those in their stories.
Throughout the Victorian era, the number of women being educated in the sciences steadily increased in Britain.5 This had the effect of preparing readers for women performing scientific tasks, instead of simply household and romantic roles. One early example is Andre Laurie's The Conquest of the Moon (1889), which involved a number of scientists and engineers being inadvertently transported to the Moon. While none of the professionals were women, the spouse of the protagonist takes on a full share of the astronomical observations and contributes to the scientific success of the mission. The 1890s saw the first women written into "mad scientist" roles, beginning in 1893 with Olga Romanoff (Figure 5), written by George Griffith.6
Others stories with evil woman scientists soon followed, but the 1899 The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (Figure 6) by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace is especially notable for two reasons. First, the character uses nuclear-generated X-rays as one murder method. The second reason is that "L.T. Meade" was a pen name for Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith7, making that book perhaps the first work written by a woman that featured a woman scientist.8
On the American side of the Atlantic, perhaps the first published science fiction stories by a woman were by Gertrude Barrows Bennett, beginning with her 1904 "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar."9 Bennett wrote those stories under the pseudonym "Francis Stevens," though this would not be generally known until decades later. Clare Winger Harris was the first to publish her stories in an SF magazine under her own name. Many of her pieces (written in the 1920s) received critical acclaim10, and her "The Fate of the Poseidonia" was one of the first to feature an heroic female protagonist.
During this same period, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize. Her first had been in physics (1903); this one was in chemistry (1911). She remains the only individual to be awarded two Nobel Prizes in the sciences.11 During World War I, Madame Curie used her Nobel prize money (she also offered her gold medals but the French National Bank declined) to organize a fleet of mobile X-ray ambulances to assist battlefield surgeons by imaging bullets, shrapnel, etc. Among those helping her was her teenage daughter Irène (Figure 7). The ambulances were so successful that they became known as "Petites Curies"(Figure 8), and she was made the director of the newly formed Red Cross Radiology Service. She also developed hollow glass needles to allow the radiation12 from radon gas (she provided the radium) to sterilize infected tissues. Her efforts have been estimated to have saved one million lives!13
After World War I, women SF authors continued to increase in numbers and, unlike their male peers, often included technology being used in domestic applications.14 Food production was one common aspect, whether it be by eating "meat tablets" (1926, "A Runaway World" by Claire Winger Harris), imbibing food "essences" (1929, "Moon Woman" by Minnie Odell Michiner under the pen name "Minna Irving"), or "chemical nourishment" (1930, "Creatures of the Light" by Sophie Wenzel Ellis). Leslie Stone15 wrote "When the Sun Went Out" (1929) which includes clothing scientifically designed to deal with the dropping temperatures. In that same year, Stone would publish "Out of the Void," which deserves special mention because radium was used to generate light, heat, and refrigeration, while radium "treated" bathing water imparted a feeling of well-being.
"Out of the Void" was hardly the first to use radium as "handwavium." In fact, ever since its well-publicized discovery, radium had achieved something of a cult status. Among the ways it was used in real-life included being a "physic" in heavily advertised products from toothpaste to chocolate to impotency cures. Below (Figure 9) is just a sample16 of the products:
Stone's 1929 story, however, would be among the last to use radium in such a role. A tragedy had been slowly building since 1917, when clock manufacturers began using radium for "glow in the dark" dial faces. The women workers who applied the radioactive substance used small camel hair paintbrushes. Even as radium laboratory workers were wearing protective clothing and taking other precautions, the factory women were being encouraged to use their lips and tongue to moisten and shape their brushes after dipping them in that same radium.17 The first of the lawsuits brought by the dying women was filed in 1927 and soon newspapers were filled with gruesome stories and grisly photographs. A legal settlement was reached in mid-1928, and Surgeon General Hugh Cumming of the U.S. Public Health Service would convene a high level public conference on December 20, 1928, to draw attention to the need for radium factory safety standards. Radium—once touted as an ingestible cure-all—had been revealed to be a dangerous poison, and it quickly disappeared from SF.
John W. Campbell took over as editor of Astounding in 1937 and soon significantly changed science fiction. He rejected stories with what he considered bogus science, and demanded that authors have scientists act like scientists and engineers act like engineers. Many established writers found themselves unable to sell anything to Campbell (now the science fiction standard setter).18 In particular, romance stories in SF settings19 were often no longer saleable. One of the casualties was reportedly Leslie Stone, when Campbell rejected her “Death Dallies Awhile." Though she did eventually sell it to Weird Tales, Stone would publish only one other story ("Gravity Off!" in Future Fiction, 1940).20
New women authors appeared, including Leigh Brackett, Judith Merril, and Katherine MacLean. Many of them had backgrounds that helped them fit their stories into the changed marketplace. Brackett not only wrote SF, but also wrote mysteries and screen plays. Among her many credits were The Big Sleep (with William Faulkner and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), Rio Bravo (starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson), and The Empire Strikes Back. Merril was a member of the famous SF fan and author group, the "Futurians." She would later marry one of them, SF author (and future member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame) Frederik Pohl. MacLean did postgraduate work in psychology and worked as a quality control technician in a food factory, both of which helped her apply soft sciences to hard SF.
In the years leading up to World War II, women remained prominent in nuclear science. One of these was Marie Curie's daughter who had helped her mother with the X-ray ambulances in World War I. Now married, Irène Joliot-Curie was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in natural and artificial radioactivity including the study of polonium, which her mother had discovered. Austrian-born nuclear physicist Lise Meitner also operated hospital X-ray equipment during World War I. She did not win the Nobel Prize, but should have. She faced both the same gender bias as did Marie Curie (her first Nobel Prize was almost awarded solely to her husband despite it being primarily her work until he threatened to decline it), but additional biases as well.21 The result was Meitner's long-time collaborator Otto Hahn was alone awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. Praised by Albert Einstein as the "German Marie Curie," Meitner's case was deemed by a 1997 Physics Today study to be "a rare instance in which personal negative opinions apparently led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist."
During World War II, the U.S. created an entirely new group of "Radium Girls." Part of the massive Manhattan Project was the transformation of sixty thousand acres of Tennessee farmland into what is now known as Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Seventy-five thousand people would inhabit a city dug out of pastures and fields and work in the numerous laboratories and production facilities, and a great number of them were women (Figure 10). Many of their jobs were clerical, but many others were technical, including operating highly advanced scientific equipment like mass spectrometer calutrons (Figure 11) for enriching uranium.22
A new SF genre of sorts had begun with the creation of Superman in 1938, whose backstory was that he had escaped to Earth as a child from the planet Krypton before it was destroyed, and who gained various superpowers due to his extra-terrestrial origin. Other superheroes soon followed, with powers gained by science experiments, inventions, or other methods. Months before the United States entered World War II, the fight against the Nazis had already been taken up by many of those same comics superheroes.
Just as the Manhattan Project brought large numbers of women into the real-life fight against the Axis powers, so too did superhero comics bring more women into the war in fiction. Debuting in August 1941 were at least six such female superheroes. "The Black Cat" was a starlet who used agility powers to break up a Nazi spy ring. "Phantom Lady" was a senator's daughter who used a secret invention to stop political assassination intended to cause political strife on the eve of war. "Wildfire" used her flame powers to stop saboteurs. "Pat Patriot" foiled an operation that was stealing airplane motors and sending them to the Axis powers. "Nelvana of the Northern Lights" was an Inuit character who used super powers to fight super-powered Nazis in Canada. "Miss America" fought anti-democratic forces.
Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the U.S. into World war II only increased the tempo. "Wonder Woman" was created in December 1941 and joined the male superheroes in fighting the Axis. The original "Black Widow" character had been an occult anti-hero but now she, too, turned her attention to fighting Nazis. "Invisible Scarlet O'Neil" was a scientist's daughter who had gained an invisibility power. Her early adventures had been to save children but, once the U.S. was at war, she faced Nazi spies. "Liberty Belle" and "Miss Victory" also soon joined the patriotic fight against the Axis. "Miss Victory" merits a special note, because her alter ego was initially a stenographer but was rewritten to be a woman scientist.
After the war ended, the number of woman scientists grew rapidly in both real life and popular SF, as the wartime and post-war expansions in science curricula and facilities meant more opportunities. The author's own mother-in-law is just one example; June Oakley graduated in 1948 with degrees in math and physics, and went to work at The Franklin Institute's Biochemical Foundation and did research using its cyclotron (the first built outside of Berkley). She retired after a long career that included researcher, physics teacher, math teacher, and vice-principal.23 Women authors like C. L. Moore and Andre Norton stepped up their output (the latter alone would publish at least fifteen SF novels in the 1950s). Woman characters also came increasingly to the fore. One example is Isaac Asimov's Dr. Susan Calvin—"robopsychologist"—who had been introduced as a character just months before the Pearl Harbor attack. Dr. Calvin did not appear in print again until the war ended, but she then essentially took over that story and all of subsequent Asimov's robot stories of that type.
As science became increasingly accessible in schools and facilities, so did interest in writing and reading SF. The 1960s saw authors such as Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Ursula Le Guin all become prolific with more female characters. Each decade since has seen more women join their ranks, including Octavia Butler, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, and Lois McMaster Bujold. Scientists such as Catherine Asaro (herself the daughter of nuclear chemist) have ensured that even the hardest of hard SF features women authors.
"Radium Girls" took a startlingly different turn in 1964 with the publication in France of "Madame Atomos" (by André Caroff, pseudonym of André Carpouzis). In that story, the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki also killed Kanoto Yoshimuta's family, driving the middle-aged scientist to adopt her new name and seek vengeance on the United States. For eighteen novels (see Figures 12 and 13 for two examples), Mdm. Atomos launched an startling variety of attacks using radioactive zombies, giant mutated spiders, freeze rays, nuclear weapons, and more.24
Shortly before Mdm. Atomos reached print in France, Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova reached outer space! She was the first woman to do so and her three day June 1963 mission included forty-eight Earth orbits. Although she had been selected mostly based on her skydiving experience, she later went on to gain degrees in engineering. Her career has an interesting parallel in fiction with Jocelyn Peabody from the British Dan Dare comic strip that was running while Ms. Tereshkova was in space. In that strip (which ran from 1950 to 1967) Peabody was a problem-solving professor, but she would later become the spaceship's chief engineer.25
Women as engineers aboard fusion or anti-matter powered spaceships have become far more common in SF. The Star Trek "universe" alone has several, including B'Elanna Torres (chief engineer of Voyager), Sonya Gomez (junior engineer aboard Captain Picard's Enterprise and captain of da Vinci in later novels), and Leah Brahms (warp drive design engineer and author of engineering manuals for Picard's Enterprise).
Star Trek canon suggests that Brahms may not have gotten full credit for her early work26, a theme that shows up elsewhere, as well. For example, Norma Cenva was introduced in God Emperor of Dune (1981) as having designed the first space-folding ships but having never gotten the credit for it. Even Kaywinnet Lee Frye ("Kaylee") of the Firefly series initially did not get credit as an engineer. It was only after Serenity's captain realized that it was "Kaylee" who was able to fix the engines—and not the titular-engineer who kept her as a lover—that she got the credit (and the job, with the other booted off the ship!). Remembering that similar gender discrimination nearly caused Marie Curie not to receive her first Nobel Prize and helped cause Lise Meitner not to receive one at all, this is an understandable but lamentable reprise of history.
Marie Curie did get her initial Nobel Prize, however, because her husband refused to tolerate gender discrimination. This action also has a happy reprise in real life. The movie Real Genius (1985) included a brilliant female character named "Jordan" who kept up with the boy geniuses, did not conform to any feminine stereotype, rescued others, was nice, and still ended up as the romantic interest. "Jordan" was somewhat patterned after Phyllis Rostykus, a Caltech engineering student who had been interviewed by the movie director and producers. Ms. Rostykus recounted that during her career the small company she and her engineer husband worked for was bought and the new owner attempted to fire her. His decision was based on his personal experience of engineers getting their wives paychecks without the wives actually doing the work. The entire engineering team stood up for her, telling the new owner that she had one-third of the entire system in her head and that they would resign if she were fired. She kept her job, and has recently stated that she felt she had been supported by male teachers, co-workers, and managers all her life who held her to the same standards as they did males.
Our society may have more progress to make in the area of gender discrimination, but Rostykus' experience shows how far we have come. Witness this excerpt from Harriet Brooks' 1907 resignation letter to the Dean of Barnard College:
“I think it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries. I cannot conceive how women’s colleges, inviting and encouraging women to enter professions can be justly founded or maintained denying such a principle.”27
In conclusion, women have been important in the nuclear field since its very beginning, and remain prominent, as evidenced by the fact that the current senior President-nominated, U.S. Senate-approved NRC Commissioner is Kristine Svinicki (the author's former boss!). Women scientists abound in science fiction today, from authors like Catharine Asaro, to cartoon inventor genius Gadget Hackwrench, to television geniuses "Abby" Sciuto (forensic scientist in NCIS series), Dr. Temperance Brennan (forensic anthropologist in Bones series), and Amy Farrah Fowler (neuroscientist in The Big Bang Theory series). Most fittingly, the actress who portrays neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler is Mayim Chaya Bialik, who is also a neuroscientist in real life.
1 From Dr. Jackson's USNRC official biography: "She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1968 and a Ph.D. in the field of theoretical elementary particle physics in 1973, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The complete document can be found here: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/organization/commission/former-commissioners/jackson.html↩
2 From Ms. Dicus' USNRC official biography: "Ms. Dicus conducted research in radiation health effects at Harvard Medical School, Rice University, and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School." The complete document can be found here: http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/organization/commission/former-commissioners/dicus.html↩
3 Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Jane Wells Webb, respectively. Shelly wrote at least one more SF novel—The Last Man (1826). Webb wrote her only SF novel as a near-penniless, single teenager. Editor John Claudius Loudon was so impressed by the story that he tracked down the author. He was surprised to learn the author was a woman, and the two married a year later. The result is that the author of The Mummy! is often listed as "Jane C. Loudon," even though that was not her legal name when she published it.↩
4 The Royal Society was founded in 1660 but did not allow women to become fellows until 1945, though apparently an exception was made for Queen Victoria.↩
5 Women's schools in Britain began to increase in size and educational scope in the late 1840s with the founding of Queen's College and Bedford College. The Education Acts of 1870 and 1876 made the education of girls compulsory. By the 1890s some universities, including the University of London and Victoria University in Manchester, were granting women degrees.↩
6 First published as The Syren of the Skies in Pearson's Magazine. Fred T. Jane was the illustrator, and his aerial warships clearly foreshadow the dreadnoughts he would soon draw in his All the World's Warships (more commonly known as Jane's Fighting Ships). See: https://www.lwcurrey.com/pages/books/143268/george-griffith-george-chetwynd-griffith-jones/olga-romanoff-or-the-syren-of-the-skies-a-sequel-to-the-angel-of-the-revolution↩
7 Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith began writing at age seventeen and would produce over three hundred stories, some with male coauthors. She was most well known for her children's literature, but also wrote mysteries, religious stories, romances, and historical novels. Robert Eustace was also a pseudonym, for Eustace Robert Barton.↩
8 A case might also be made that American author Mary Griffith was first, as her "Three Hundred Years Hence" was published in 1836. In that story, a key part of the far future society is an energy source credited to a woman. It is unclear, however, just what part the woman (she is not named in the story) played. She could have researched it as a scientist, created it as an inventor, or simply found something in a hole in her backyard! The only attribution is the line, "The world owes this blessed invention to a female!" See: http://www.lwcurrey.com/pages/books/137123/l-t-meade-eustace-robert-barton-elizabeth-thomasina-meade-smith-robert-eustace/the-brotherhood-of-the-seven-kings↩
9 In that tale, the injured narrator inadvertently gains enormous strength from exposure a new element ("stellarite"), much the same way many superheroes like Spiderman, Flash, and the Hulk would gain their powers many decades later. Thus, Bennett's piece might be the first superhero "origins" story! Bennett also published one of the very early dystopian future novels with her 1919 The Heads of Cerberus, in which anyone who breathes in the fumes of a phial is transported two hundred years into the future to a dark and totalitarian Philadelphia.↩
10 Almost all of Harris' approximately a dozen stories have been reprinted multiple times. Writer and editor Richard Lupoff has been quoted as saying that Harris' 1928 "Miracle of the Lily" would have "won the Hugo Award for best short story, if the award had existed then."↩
11 Linus Pauling is the only other person to win two Nobel Prizes. However, only one of his was in the sciences (Chemistry, 1954). The other was the Peace Prize (1962) for his peace activism.↩
12 This precise form of radiation was originally called "radium emanation"—a phrase coined by Harriet Brooks in 1902 in letters to Ernest Rutherford. Brooks, the first Canadian female nuclear physicist, was then a young research assistant and was unaware that Madame Curie had used the term "emissions" for similar phenomena. Rutherford adopted Brooks' term and consequently both competing terms saw extensive use and can still be found in period texts. See the Rutherford Museum image here: http://www.physics.mcgill.ca/museum/emanations.htm Brooks would become a classic example of the gender discrimination so common in that age when, upon her engagement four years later, she was told by the Barnard College Dean that she would have to resign her post there.↩
13 See: http://theinstitute.ieee.org/tech-history/technology-history/how-marie-curie-helped-save-a-million-soldiers-during-world-war-i and http://livebooklet.com/publish.php?wpKey=VeVPXuUMAOL0q0gde1vi1D↩
14 Several of the early works, like Man's Rights (1870, by Annie Denton Cridge) and Herland (1915, Charlotte Perkins Gilman), involve all-female societies who reproduce by parthenogenesis.↩
15 Leslie Stone was a pseudonym of Leslie F. Silberberg (born Leslie F. Rubenstein).↩
16 Additional products and their histories can be found at: http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/quackcures/quackcures.htm↩
17 One excellent source is Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935, by Claudia Clark, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1997.↩
18 Isaac Asimov wrote, "the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies" ("Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction," in Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology (1973), edited by Harry Harrison).↩
19 This SF subgenre had become known as "Planetary Romance." The pulp romance adventures previously set in exotic "lost world" settings of "darkest" Africa or the Far East that had been so popular in the 19th Century had simply shifted their locales to other planets such as Mars or Venus. Similarly, indigenous natives had become aliens or other-world humans. Some of these stories, like the swashbuckling Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, continued to sell hugely and have endured, but most others did not.↩
20 Although Stone recounted that Campbell gave her a curt rejection in person in 1938, some of the dates may not quite line up, as the Weird Tales publication date is just a few months after Campbell's Astounding rejection date. Given the lag times between acceptance and print publications, it might have already been accepted when she said she met with Campbell.↩
21 Lise Meitner received many other awards throughout her lifetime, including Leibniz Medal by the Berlin Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Medal. After the Anschluss in March 1938, Nazi anti-Semitism forced her to flee first to the Netherlands and then to Sweden during the fission research efforts, leaving her able to continue to contribute only by calculations and correspondence. Many scholars who have studied the records of the Nobel Committee records have proclaimed Meitner's exclusion to be a miscarriage of justice.↩
22 For a wonderfully readable account of these women, read The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan (2013). One of the anecdotes Kiernan relates is how high school educated women calutron operators outperformed highly trained and better educated male technicians, because the men had less patience and kept trying to tweak the equipment to improve performance (and failing).↩
23 June Oakley Bertram currently resides in Virginia with her husband, Jack Bertram, who was recently awarded the French Legion of Honor for his wartime service that included thirty-six missions as a B-17 pilot over France and Germany.↩
24 All of the Madame Atomos stories are now available in English as translated by Brian Stableford (Volume 1) and Michael Shreve (Volumes 2 - 10) at: http://www.blackcoatpress.com/e-books-madame-atomos-1-1-the-sinister-madame-atomos.html#63b45f62be7a5c9dfa850295c6fd5ccd and http://www.blackcoatpress.com/e-books-madame-atomos-1-2-the-terror-of-madame-atomos.html#dac76fecb265941e76dc9e6dcc9cc748↩
25 Peabody's role change was part of the recasting done when the series was rebooted for television in 2002.↩
27 Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist, Mcgill-Queens University Press, 1992.↩
Copyright © 2016 Jim Beall
Jim Beall (BS-Math, MBA, PE) has been a nuclear engineer for over forty years, a war gamer for over fifty, and an avid reader of science fiction for even longer. His experience in nuclear engineering and power systems began as a naval officer. Experience after the USN includes design, construction, inspection, enforcement, and assessment with a nuclear utility, an architect engineering firm, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC).