by Deborah Harter Williams
There is currently a big push to get girls interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and creating positive role models on television looks like one way to do it. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has an oft repeated principle “If you can see it you can be it.” Here are women scientists you might have seen on television over the past 50 years.
The 60s – SpyFi, Space and Daytime Doctors
1965-68 The Avengers – Emma Peel (Diana Rigg)
Peel is often remembered for the leather cat suit she wore plus her fencing and martial arts skills. But she was the go-to person for plots involving physics, biology, astronomy, and botany as well. She specialized in chemistry and wrote scholarly papers on thermodynamics and math algorithms. She was no nerd. The name “Emma Peel” is derived from “Man Appeal” or “M. Appeal,” a stated function of the character.
Actress Note: When Rigg learned she was being paid less than the cameraman she planned to quit. But the producers quickly gave her a raise when they saw the popularity of the series in the United States.
1966-69 Star Trek – Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols)
While Chief Communications officer on the Starship Enterprise, Uhura also manned the helm, and the navigation and science stations when needed. The character inspired young women, including Dr. Mae Jemison (first black woman to fly on the Space Shuttle). Jemison even scored a small role on Star Trek: The Next Generation as a transporter operator.
Writer Note: Many of the Star Trek scripts were written by D.C. (Dorothy) Fontana under both her own name and pseudonyms. Starting as Gene Roddenberry’s secretary, she became a prolific and successful sci-fi writer.
The Doctors ran from 1963-1982 featuring Dr. Althea Davis (Elizabeth Hubbard) in a lead role. Ellen Burstyn also appeared as Dr. Kate Bartok. Both General Hospital and Days of Our Lives had leading women characters that were doctors.
There were some women playing doctors in primetime, as on Medical Center (1969-76), but they mostly were there to let the male doctors look smart. During the day on soap operas they got to be much more functional.
The 70s – Super but not Scientific
It was hard to find women scientists during the decade of jiggle. The smart women were more likely to be action heroes. This was the time of Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman (75-79) and bionic Jaime Sommers.
The Bionic Woman worked for the Office of Scientific Investigation but her training was as schoolteacher and professional tennis player.
The 80s – Automotive and Out of this World
1982-86 Knight Rider – Dr. Bonnie Barstow (Patricia McPherson).
Bonnie was Chief engineer in charge of KITT (Knight Rider Industries Two Thousand) car. She not only knew her way around computers and cars but also could rig up an experimental laser as a weapon. When the character was dropped after the first season, fans complained. She was brought back in the third season (returned from graduate school) and stayed for the duration.
1987-2005 Star Trek – the Voyages Continue
TNG, DSN, Voyager, Enterprise – Crusher, Janeway, Seven of Nine
Genre Note: Science fiction has always been a welcoming venue for women scientists – in space, the future or in alternate realities women are remarkably smart and well educated using their science skills to solve problems and save the day.
The 90s – Supernatural Skeptic and Astrophysicist
1993-2002 The X-Files – Enter Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson)
Scully was the scientist paired with the believer, an intentional reverse of the usual TV dynamic. Fox executives wanted someone more glamorous as Scully, hoping to set up a romantic angle but creator Chris Carter vigorously refused. He was quite taken with Anderson’s serious reading of the character and knew immediately she was the actress for the job.
Scully had a B.S. degree in physics and wrote an undergraduate thesis called Einstein’s Twin Paradox: A New Interpretation. While at Stanford medical school, she was recruited by the FBI and later partnered with Fox Mulder. She often performed autopsies and acted as forensic pathologist in the course of their investigations.
Writer Note: Carter named Scully after Dodger sportscaster, Vin Scully and says she was inspired by Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
1997 – 2008 Stargate and all its follow up incarnations.
Capt. Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) Ph.D, theoretical astrophysics.
The 2000s – Here come the CSIs, a Math Star and Some Alternate Reality
When CSI started in 2000, it offered a whole new way of looking at police procedurals. The scientists came out of the back room and fundamentally updated crime solving. The formula proved so popular that it has gone on to be a franchise.
2000-2015 CSI the original. In the beginning the series had two women scientists, one a former Las Vegas dancer. Katherine Willow was the night shift supervisor and later moved up when Gil Grissom departed. Her sister in the crime lab was the geekier Sarah Sidle, materials, and elements analyst, who had studied physics at Harvard.
2002 – 2012 CSI: Miami; 2004-2013 CSI: New York
Khandi Alexander, Emily Proctor, Melina Kanakaredes and Sela Ward all
created smart and memorable characters as CSIs.
As it turned out, the work of forensic scientists and medical examiners made for good TV and opened up opportunities for leading roles for women. See previous article: kingsriverlife.com/01/25/medical-examiners-make-good-tv
2005-2010 Numbers – Dr. Amita Ramanujan – Math wiz
Amita was a graduate of and faculty member at CalSci with a doctorate in computational mathematics; an expert on asymptotic combinatorics and a top programmer. Besides helping the FBI, she has pursued an additional Ph.D. in astrophysics, did research on Artificial Intelligence and participated in the search for the Higgs Boson.
Character Note: The last name of the character references Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.
The series also featured a woman behavioral specialist and a woman experimental neutrino astrophysicist who became Chair of the CalSci Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy Division.
2008 – 2013 Fringe – Astrid Farnsworth (Jasica Nicole), and Nina Sharp, (Blair Brown)
Astrid is the assistant to Fringe Agent Olivia Dunham and is charged with the care and feeding of mad, but benevolent scientist, Walter Bishop. She speaks five languages, studied cryptology, linguistics, and computer science. The parallel universe version of Astrid is an autistic computer and statistics specialist. Nina Sharp runs Massive Dynamic Corporation and is privy to and supervises all its scientific secrets. Plus she is bionic herself, a living science experiment.
2015 – Who’s the smartest woman scientist on TV today?
Currently there are a number of women scientists on long running shows plus some new ones introduced in the last couple of years. Who would you vote for as the best woman scientist?
Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) – NCIS since 2003
Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) – Bones since 2005
Maura Isles ((Sasha Alexander) – Rizzoli & Isles since 2010
Avery Ryan (Patricia Arquette) – CSI:Cyber – 2015
Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik – who is a neuroscientist)
The Big Bang Theory since 2010
Happy Quinn (Jadyn Wong) – Scorpion – since 2014
Vote for your choice and let us know if we left out anyone that you think should be mentioned.
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