By Minna Rae Friedman, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Can you name a woman inventor? At least one voice in a crowd always answers Madame Marie Curie, (and she was a discoverer). Can you name a Jewish woman inventor? Silence.
Not only were many women inventors, but Jewish women certainly have made their mark in history. Some we have heard of, but many got no credit, and others had their work credited to their husbands or male co-workers. A woman’s work was traditionally in the home. Inventing was certainly a man’s domain.
A true example of this mindset was the work of Lise Meitner whose associates received a Nobel Prize while she did not. Like many women of her time, she was ridiculed and discouraged in her scientific pursuits, but inspired by Madam Curie, continued in her work in the field of radioactivity.
When denied admission to the Chemical Institute because she was a woman, she built her own lab in a carpenter’s workshop and with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, continued her work, eventually launching the nuclear age with her findings which were published in 1939.
Although Enrico Fermi is credited by history, Lise Meitner was the first to split the uranium nuclei and always decried the military uses of her discoveries. She retired from the field of atomic physics as soon as Hiroshima was destroyed, although she continued her scientific pursuits and died at the age of 90 in 1968.
Little did the TV gourmet chef, Graham Kerr, The Galloping Gourmet, realize that his double boiler was invented by a Jewish woman as far back as the first century. During one of demonstrations, when he referred to his bain-marie, (and commented that he had no clue why it was called that) little did he know that it was Maria, the Jewess, who had invented the water bath for laboratory use in experiments, the forerunner of the French double boiler (bain-marie is French for bath of Marie), The concept was used for many years in doctor’s offices and hospitals in the sterilization of instruments in what was the autoclave.
It is not surprising that many inventions grew out of the household, where women have held court by tradition or choice. One common device was developed by an uncommon woman, Dorothy Rodgers. Living in the realm of the rich and famous, she might not be expected to see cleaning toilets as an area needing improvement. In her ingenious way, she fashioned a long- handled plastic device with a flushable head and called it The Johny Mop.
Even then, she had to sue for her financial rights when the manufacturer tried to take advantage of femininity and withheld her profits. Dorothy was the wife of composer Richard Rodgers, (Carousel – South Pacific – Sound of Music – The King and I). She went on to develop the Try-On dress pattern that could be washed and ironed, and the Turn and Learn books for children.
In the 1920s, the flat, flapper look in dresses was the “cat’s meow,” but the underpinnings could be uncomfortable. To remedy the unattractive and uncomfortable situation, Polly Jacobs put together what we could consider the forerunner of the bra.
Using two handkerchiefs, some ribbon and thread, she created an undergarment with more comfort than the old corset cover and showed it to some friends.
She was secretly making them for the ladies, but when someone sent her the handsome sum of $1 for one, she knew it was a good idea. With some borrowed funds, she opened what could be termed a sweat shop with two sewing machines and two young girls to manufacture
her goods – this from a woman of high social stature who traveled with the elite.
After trying to peddle her wares and meeting with only limited success, her idea was sold to the Warner Brothers Corset Company. Although she was paid, $1,500, in the next 30 years, more that $15 million was accrued by Warner based on her contraption.
Polly’s idea fell by the wayside with Ida Rosenthal’s development of the ‘cup.’ She had made them as additions to the dresses she manufactured to make them look and fit better. She gave them away, but found the ladies returning for them alone to enhance the newer, more natural look of the bodice. With her husband labeling the cup sizes A-B-C-D, the two went on to borrow start-up money and began the Maiden Form Brassiere Company, which by the 1960’s was reaching the $40 million mark annually.
Another socially prominent family in the London of 1920 bore a daughter, Rosalind Franklin. Disappointing her family, Rosalind chose to follow the path of science instead of philanthropy. She was certainly ahead of her time as the first researcher to discern the make-up of DNA, life’s building block. She was excluded from meetings with her male colleagues and although a member of a four person team, was not mentioned or included when they were awarded a 1962 Nobel Prize for their discoveries. Rosalind had died several years earlier at the age of 37 and the Nobel Prize is awarded only to living recipients. Chicago Medical College in North Chicago, IL was recently renamed Rosalind Franklin University.
There is a whole renegade group of historians who believe Einstein may have gotten his best ideas from his first wife, Mileva. She was a mathematician and physicist in her own right and even passed the entrance exam to Swiss Polytech that Albert had flunked.
When Ruth Handler saw her daughter, Barbara, pass up ‘baby dolls,’ she designed an older version inspired by one she had seen in Germany and had her husband manufacture it. She was highly discouraged by her colleagues as it was so different from what young girls played with at the time, but in the first eight years of production, $500 million worth of Barbie dolls were sold.
Ruth was always inventive. When her husband manufactured furniture, she suggested he do it in miniature for doll houses. They named the Mattel toy company after the names of partner Harold Mattson and his own, Elliot Handler. The Ken doll that followed, was named for their son.
In later years, Ruth underwent a mastectomy, but recognized a need and an opportunity even in that. Not happy with what was on the market, with retired Mattel doll designers, she developed the Nearly Me prosthesis and a special line of swim wear for cancer patients.
A more recognizable name is Helena Rubinstein, who came to America from a Polish ghetto the long way. Her first stop was Australia where she made a fortune with a cream for sun-damaged skin. Then on to London where she opened its first beauty salon. From there, to France, which she left at the approach of World War I.
Helena helped popularize the use of cosmetics which at that time generally were used only by ‘loose’ women. She set up her salon in New York and business thrived. Her fortune was made through the stock market crash of 1929. In 1928, she sold her enterprise for $3 million and the following year bought it back for $1.5 million. When she was denied the penthouse rental she wanted because no Jews were allowed, she bought the building. She never stopped working and until her death in her 90’s, conducted business from her royal sized bed.
Following her death, $130 million was in her estate with $500,000 going to build the Helen Rubinstein Pavilion of Art in Israel.
One of the most documented Jewish women inventor/scientists was Rosalind S.Yalow.
Born in the Bronx, N.Y. in 1921, she was the only woman among 400 male students in engineering school according to “American Jewish Biographies.” In 1977, she became the second woman to win a Nobel Prize in medicine for her discovery of radioimmunoassay, a way to measure concentrations of everything from hormones and enzymes to viruses and drugs.
Much credit can be given to the Women’s Inventors Project in Toronto for correcting the idea that only men are inventors. Chips Klein, co-director of the project, is thanked by creative women everywhere for her efforts to patent and popularize their ideas. Her organization provides instruction and encouragement in all phases of their work.
In their book, ‘Mothers of Invention,’ authors Ethlie Ann Vare and Greg Ptacek, noted that in the years 1905-21, even before women could vote, 5,016 patents were granted to them in those 16 years alone.
Have an idea? Don’t just sit there! Invent something!