WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY
Award-Winning Filmmaker Documents Pioneering Women in Science
Documentary filmmaker Rosemarie Reed likes dramatizing the lives of little-known women scientists and showing that their relatively unfamiliar stories are really big stories, achievements that dramatically advanced knowledge in their fields, despite political or societal conditions that denied them opportunity or recognition in their day. Ms. Reed tends to focus on historical figures, among them the Greek mathematician Hypatia (d. 415); Ada Byron Lovelace (d. 1852) who wrote a computer program for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine; Irene Joliot-Curie (d. 1956), who, with her husband, won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and Lise Meitner (d.1968), the overlooked colleague of Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission. More recent subjects attracting Ms. Reed’s attention include Alice Hamilton (d. 1970), the first woman on the faculty of Harvard Medical School who forged understanding of industrial toxology); Hedy Lamarr, née Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (d. 2000)—yes, the glamorous movie star, but did you know that she invented a torpedo guidance system?); and Frances Kelsey, whose courageous research at the Food and Drug Administration in the `60s proved the link between thalidomide and birth defects.
Have times changed substantially in light of feminist and gender emphases in schools and universities and legislation in the workplace? Are women who are doing groundbreaking work in mathematics and science being given their media due and thus serving as role models for the next generation? Who outside the community of theoretical physicists—or constant watchers of “Charlie Rose”—has heard of Lisa Randall, arguably, as Rose put it in a show late last year, “the most cited scientist” working today at the juncture of particle physics and cosmology, unraveling, as the subtitle to her book Warped Passages puts it, “the mysteries of the universe’s hidden dimensions”? Ms. Reed has heard of her, of course, and has consulted with legendary cinematographer D.A. Pennebaker, who is working on a film about Professor Randall.
Rosemarie Reed loves her work producing documentaries and can imagine doing nothing anything else, although she made this work her major professional pursuit only after years in radio and public relations. A graduate of Queens College (English) and then Hunter College (Communications and International Affairs), she found herself early on in Washington, D.C., surrounded by press people and by women active in promoting women’s issues as they related to health, welfare, housing, human rights, equal rights and community activism. Back in New York she became a long-time volunteer for WBAI and soon caught the eye of then well-known station manager Steve Post who, about to leave the station, suggested she should consider taking his position. When Ms. Reed finally moved into video, she learned on the job. There were no classes in practicum then, but native smarts combined with determination and happy coincidence proved significant. Through her volunteer work she got to know people at PBS, and she was invited to rethink some of her radio projects as TV specials. Soon, she was off and running – radio pieces on JFK, organized crime, Mikhail Gorbachev (a project that begat a film and two others about Russia), the disappeared in Argentina, Winnie Mandela—work that took her around the world. She had earlier spent some months in Vietnam, where she worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross and then taught English, experiences that clearly informed her subsequent work in prompting her sympathy for resilient outsiders, unappreciated heroic figures, many of them women.
Success has bred success: Ms. Reed’s much-heralded film on Lise Meitner, shown on PBS last summer—“The Path to Nuclear Fission: the story of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn”—was funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, augmented by a grant from the NSF. Her current million-dollar project, funded by Sloan—three one-hour features on, respectively, Ada Lovelace, Irene Curie and Frances Kelsey—reflects Ms. Reed’s deep commitment to honor and publicize the lives of women who were more than significant investigators and inventors. They were, she says, “all the right people.” They mattered then, they matter now, for how they persevered as much as for what they accomplished. To know about them and their work is to correct the historical record, and, it is hoped, to ensure that girls today who may aspire to careers in science, mathematics or technology have a world of inspiration before them.#
For more information on Rosemarie Reed Productions, readers are directed to www.filmsforthought.com.