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Underrated Women in History

todayMarch 14, 2022 14

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Underrated Women in History

By Hannah Dunbar


Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr was born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria. Her father was a bank director and he discussed with her the inner workings of different machines, like the printing press or street cars. This had an impact on Lamarr’s thinking. At the age of five, she was able to take apart and reassemble her music box to understand how the machine operated. Meanwhile, Lamarr’s mother was a concert pianist and introduced her to the arts, placing her in both ballet and piano lessons from a young age.


Unfortunately, Lamarr’s intelligence was ignored for her beauty. When she was sixteen years old she was discovered by director Max Reinhardt. She studied acting with Reinhardt in Berlin and was in her first small film role in a German film called Geld auf der Straβe (“Money on the Street”) that came out in 1930. In 1932, Lamarr gained recognition as an actress in a controversial film called “Ecstasy”.


She married one of adoring fans in 1933- Fritz Mandl, who was an Austrian munitions dealer; however, this marriage was very short-lived as Lamarr was incredibly unhappy. The actress was forced to play host and smile on demand amongst Mandl’s friends and scandalous business partners, some of whom were associated with the Nazi party. Lamarr managed to escape Mandl’s clutches in 1937 by fleeing to London. Little did he know, she took the knowledge gained from the dinner-table conversations over wartime weaponry.


As Lamarr lived her newfound life in London, she was introduced to Louis B. Mayer, of the famed MGM Studios. This booked her a ticket to Hollywood, where Lamarr was introduced to a variety of well-known people, such as businessman and pilot Howard Hughes. The American audience was blown away by her grace and beauty.


Hughes and Lamarr dated, but she was more interested in his desire for innovation as her genius mind was drowned in the glamor of Hollywood. Hughes helped reignite Lamarr’s scientific side. He gave the actress a small set of equipment to use on her trailer on set which allowed her to work on small inventions between takes.


In 1940 Lamarr met George Antheil, a man known for his writing, film scores, and experimental music compositions, at a dinner party. After her marriage to Mandl, she had knowledge on munitions and various weaponry that would prove beneficial. Lamarr and Antheil teamed up together and began to tinker with ideas to combat the axis powers during World War II.


The duo came up with a new communication system with the intention of it guiding torpedoes to their targets in war. The system involved the use of “frequency hopping” amongst radio waves, with both transmitter and receiver hopping to new frequencies together. Doing so prevented the interception of the radio waves, thereby allowing the torpedo to find its intended target. After its creation, Lamarr and Antheil sought a patent and military support for the invention. While awarded U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 in August of 1942, the Navy decided against the implementation of the new system. The rejection led Lamarr to instead support the war efforts with her celebrity by selling war bonds. Lamarr became an American citizen in April 1953.


Despite Lamarr’s efforts, her patent expired, and she never even saw a penny from it. She continued her acting career until 1958. It wasn’t until Lamarr’s later years that she received any awards for her invention. The Electronic Frontier Foundation jointly awarded Lamarr and Antheil with their Pioneer Award in 1997. Lamarr also became the first woman to receive the Invention Convention’s Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.


Unfortunately, Lamarr died in 2000, but she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the development of her frequency hopping technology in 2014. This achievement has led Lamarr to be dubbed “the mother of Wi-Fi” along with other wireless communications like the GPS and Bluetooth.


Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Virginia. Lacks was one of a diverse group of patients who unknowingly donated cells at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951.


On January 29, 1951, Lacks went to Hopkins to diagnose abnormal pain and bleeding in her abdomen. Physician Howard Jones quickly diagnosed her with cervical cancer. During her subsequent radiation treatments, doctors removed two cervical samples from Lacks without her knowledge. She died at Johns Hopkins on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture


The cells from Lack’s tumor made their way to the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey. The doctor noticed an unusual quality in the cells. Unlike most cells, which survived only a few days, Lack’s cells were far more durable. Gey isolated and multiplied a specific cell, creating a cell line. He dubbed the resulting sample “HeLa”, derived from her name, Henrietta Lacks.


The HeLa strain revolutionized medical research. Jonas Salk used the HeLa strain to develop the polio vaccine -one of the first vaccines, sparking mass interest in the cells. As demand grew, scientists cloned the cells in 1955.


Since that time, over ten thousand patents involving HeLa cells have been registered. Researchers have used the cells to study disease and to test human sensitivity to new products and substances.


The way that Lack’s cells were obtained has caused much controversy and debate. People have found the way the doctors obtained her cells was unethical since they did it without her consent. At the time, this type of practice was legal, but surprisingly sometimes consent is not always required in the U.S. to this day.


Henrietta Lacks has dozens of descendants, several of whom are leading a new effort to honor her on a website called “HELA100: The Henrietta Lacks Initiative”. The family wants scientists to acknowledge that HeLa cells came from an African American woman and honor her name.


Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia. Katherine Johnson loved math. Early in her career, she was called a “computer.” She helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put an astronaut into orbit around Earth and helped send a man to the moon.


Ever since Johnson was little, she loved to count, and she would count everything. She loved learning as well and was always eager to learn new things. Johnson was 10-years old when she started high school!


At the age of fifteen, Johnson attended her first year of college. She took classes to become a mathematician and graduated at the age of 18. After finishing college, Johnson became a teacher. She taught school until she got married and had children of her own. When her husband became very sick, she started teaching again to provide and support her family.


At the age of 34, Johnson heard about how the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, later known as NASA) was looking to hire an African American woman to solve math problems. These workers at NACA were called “computers.” Katherine applied for one of the jobs, but the jobs were already taken. Johnson did not give up. She applied again the next year, and this time around NACA hired her. She worked with a large group of women who were all computers like she was.


Katherine Johnson was quite different from the other human computers. She would ask a lot of questions. She wanted to learn more about her work and about NASA, so she started going to meetings. Before Johnson was hired, only men would attend these meetings. Johnson changed that! She learned so much that she left her job as a computer. She became a team member who worked on different space projects for NASA.


In 1962, the U.S. decided to send people to the Moon. Getting to and from the Moon would take a lot of work. As the U.S. space agency, NASA would have to solve many, many problems. So, NASA created large teams to solve them.


Katherine Johnson studied how to use geometry for space travel. She was able to figure out the paths for the spacecraft to orbit around the Earth and to land on the Moon. NASA used her math, and it was proven to work. NASA sent astronauts into orbit around Earth. Later on, her math helped send astronauts to the Moon and back. NASA could not have done these things without Katherine Johnson and her love for math! Johnson worked for NASA for more than 30 years and she retired in 1986.


It is amazing to see how much women have contributed to our history. I was completely unaware of Hedy Lamarr and Henrietta Lacks. I recall learning about Katherine Johnson in school and she was a joy to learn about. More of these women should be taught in schools.

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