From the Obituaries: Trailblazing Women & Moms

6 years ago

I gave my tooth to science badge trailblazing womenLeading the Way

There are so many women who have forged ahead of us leaving a path to follow and a map for making our own way. A great number of these women had families and household responsibilities in addition to making great strides for their causes and professions and other women, in general. The majority of these women have gone unnoticed; neither winning awards nor gaining great prestige. And yet we are able to do and be and choose and say because of these women.

From the Obits

As I've mentioned on several occasions the one thing I read on a regular basis is The Week. The Week is a comprehensive guide to news from around the globe with bits representing both sides of an argument with articles on subjects ranging from that week's headlines, politics, science and technology, movie reviews, restaurant reviews, obituaries, etc. Yes, obituaries. There are usually only 2, but sometimes 3 obits listed.

These are not your run of the mill kind of obituaries. Generally, they are written about someone who was well-known in his or her field, but sometimes they are about people who did extraordinary things in his or her life without ever being well known. I always read them and have learned much from these articles.

Dr. Louise Reiss

It was from one such obituary a few months ago that the idea for this post 1ststruck me. The article was on the passing of Dr. Louise Reiss. Heard of her? No? Well, she did amazing work that started with a very simple plan and ended with a ban on certain nuclear testing.

Dr. Louise Reiss, born in 1920, the same year that women won the right to vote, attended medical school and married a fellow medical student. The two moved to St. Louis, MO in the 1950s for her husband, Dr. Eric Reiss, to take a position with the Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. Louise Reiss was hired by the St. Louis City Health Department to work on inoculating children with the polio vaccine.

In 1959, the Drs. Reiss, along with an environmental scientist, created the Greater St. Louis Citizens' Committee for Nuclear Information. It was this founding trio who initiated the Baby Tooth Survey and joined forces with Saint Louis University and Washington University of Dental Medicine to carry out the study. Dr. Louise Reiss was named the Director of this study from 1959 to 1961, leading and organizing this project.

The Baby Tooth Survey was a brilliant and simple plan to study the affect above ground nuclear testing was having on humans. Specifically, "The goal was to show that radioactive fallout from nuclear testing was getting into the nation's food supply and ultimately working its way into human bones and teeth. And the study succeeded." Source: NY Times

Youngsters losing teeth were asked to send their baby teeth to researchers. In exchange for the teeth, kids received badges which read, "I gave my tooth to science." Over 12 years, the Baby Tooth Survey researchers collected almost 320,000 baby teeth.

The teeth were sent to the Washington University lab where they were tested for strontium 90, one of over 100 chemicals present in nuclear explosions and reactors. This chemical is similar to calcium, attaching to teeth and bones when ingested through food and water. The baby teeth were the easiest way to test large numbers of people from around the country.

As was reported by The Nation in June 1959, "Dr. Louise Reiss and her assistants have had extraordinary success in getting local schools — public, private and parochial — to help in the teeth collecting. Some 250,000 forms have been distributed to reach all lower-grade students. At present, baby teeth are reaching the little office on West Pine Boulevard at the rate of about 50 a day." Source: NY Times

In one instance, the study found that children born in St. Louis in 1963 had 50 times as much strontium 90 in their teeth than children born in 1950, prior to atomic testing. In 1963, Dr. Eric Reiss testified before a Senate committee in support of the treaty with the Soviet Union and Great Britain to stop above ground nuclear testing; the treaty was signed two months later.

In 1996, in a letter to a colleague involved in the Baby Tooth Survey, Dr. Louise Reiss wrote, "I continue to be moved by the knowledge that a group of organized people can effectively pressure government if they come up with data instead of rhetoric." Source NY Times

My Early Computer

In 2011, it's almost unheard of to not own a computer. In our household, we have two laptops. And yet I did not own a computer of my own until my parents bought me one during my senior year of college. Until that time, when I needed to type and print something from a computer, I went to a computer lab on campus where large, clunky computers lined tables which were linked to two antiquated printers that often jammed on the reams of paper snaking through the machines. There was no Internet to surf, no Facebook to check or emails to return. It's hard to remember those days.

Jean Jennings Bartik

Well, just a few weeks ago, we lost a true pioneer woman; as in technology pioneer. Jean Jennings Bartik, was the only math major in her class at Northwest Missouri State Teachers College. When Bartik learned that the Army was hiring talented mathematicians for a project in Philadelphia she left on the next bus.

Bartik was on a team of 6 women whose task it was to program the ENIAC {Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer} the first all-electronic digital computer. Although it was first billed as plugging in electrical connections, the work actually entailed "converting mathematical calculations into electrical impulses decipherable by machine." It was extremely grueling work. ENIAC was originally intended to calculate the firing trajectories for artillery shells, but it was completed in 1946 and was too late for the war.

Bartik went on to work on the programming of Univac, an early commercial computer, introduced in 1951. She also worked on hardware and software for Univac and Binac, a small computer made for Northrop Airlines.

In 1951, Bartik stopped working to raise three children. Bartik returned to the computer industry in 1967. From 1967 until 1985, when Bartik was layed off, she did work with programming, training and technical publishing in the emerging computer industry.

Although at the time of her work with ENIAC, BINAC and UNIVAC she did not receive recognition, in recent years Bartik was honored for her groundbreaking, transformative work in computers.

The Scoop

These two women are just the tip of a very large iceberg. So many women, both known and unknown, honored and overlooked, young and old have contributed to our societal freedoms, advancements and overall knowledge. These women are our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and so on. So much is owed to these brave, strong, innovative, bright, determined women. Let us hope that when our children are adults they can look at our generation and say the same thing. Over and out...


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