May 28, 2019

She Blinded Me with Science: Women Scientists and Doctors in ‘50s Sci-fi Films

We don’t normally think of the 1950s as a time of women’s empowerment. After World War II, Rosie the Riveter was given her pink slip and told to go home and have babies. Popular magazines were full of advice to single women on catching a man -- a 1958 McCall’s article, “129 Ways to Get a Husband,” suggested, among other things, reading obituaries to find eligible widowers or having your car break down in “strategic places.” (!!)

Rosie the Riveter
"Thanks for all your help Rosie. Go ahead and
clock out -- your last check is in the mail."
On TV, it was a time of Father Knows Best and the saintly stay-at-home mom exemplified by June in Leave It to Beaver. In the movies, working women were often depicted as lost souls to be pitied rather than strong role models to be emulated. Across the popular culture landscape, motherhood was extolled as a woman’s greatest fulfillment.

An interesting exception to the rule was the B sci-fi movie. Capable, courageous female scientists and doctors popped up time and again to help battle giant radioactive monsters or menaces from outer space.

Undoubtedly, the presence of women in lead roles added a romantic angle that had potential appeal for adult audiences. The women spent almost as much time fending off the awkward advances of their male colleagues as battling monsters (more on that below).

Perhaps too, their presence was a subtle acknowledgement that while men got us into this atom age radioactive mess, women were needed to help get us out of it. Whatever the motives, conscious or unconscious, these unassuming films went against the cultural grain and set the stage for the normalization of women’s achievement outside of home and family.

The following list of profiles in B movie courage only scratches the surface of strong female characters in ‘50s sci-fi. This time around I’ve limited it to women scientists and doctors with key roles -- even at that, it’s a selective list. Not included are the pioneering female astronauts, or, for that matter, the “ordinary” single women, wives and mothers who faced extraordinary sci-fi threats. I’ll take those up in future posts.

Along with each character’s resume and screen accomplishments, I’ve included a “cringe moment.” This was the ‘50s after all, and being subjected to chauvinistic acts and comments was the price women paid for inclusion in the monster fighters’ club. These vignettes serve to illustrate how far we’ve come, at least as far as the depiction of “normal” male-female relations in popular culture is concerned.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Name: Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond)

Paul Hubschmid and Paula Raymond in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
"Hey mister, I've got a bone to pick with you!"
Resume: Hunter is an assistant to Prof. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), world-renowned paleontologist, and an accomplished scientist in her own right.

Biggest screen moment: Nuclear scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid) approaches Elson and Hunter with a wild story of seeing a huge prehistoric creature unleashed by a polar atomic test. Elson is completely dismissive, but Lee keeps an open mind, showing Nesbitt illustrations of dinosaurs to try to identify what he saw. After a fishing trawler is capsized by what witnesses insist was a sea serpent, Lee suggests they show the set of pictures to one of the survivors in a sort of creature line-up. When the sailor picks the same dinosaur as Nesbitt, Elson becomes convinced, and they arrange an expedition to track down the monster.

Biggest cringe moment: When Nesbitt and Hunter are alone discussing what he might have seen, he awkwardly tries to flirt with her:
  “Funny, a girl like you, a paleontologist…”
  “What’s wrong with paleontology?”
  “Classifying old bones…”
  “Old bones? If we didn’t study the past, you wouldn’t know anything about the atom. Dr. Elson says the future is a reflection of the past…”

Additional notes: After her role in Beast, Paula dived into TV, guesting on dozens of shows, including One Step Beyond, Perry Mason and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  She also appeared in two of the more obscure B sci-fi films of the ‘60s, The Flight that Disappeared (1961), and Hand of Death (1962; with John Agar).

Them! (1954)
Name: Dr. Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon)

Resume: Along with her father, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), Pat is part of a scientific team sent by the Dept. of Agriculture to help the authorities in New Mexico investigate a series of mysterious deaths in the desert near the White Sands atomic test area.

Joan Weldon in Them! (1954)
"I told them it was a bad idea to have a picnic
out here in the middle of nowhere!"
Biggest screen moment: When they find the underground nest of giant ants, special agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and State Trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) launch phosphorus grenades at the nest to drive them underground, and then lob poison gas canisters after them. To make sure all the ants are dead, someone has to rappel down into the nest to check. Pat insists on going with them. When Graham states emphatically that “it’s no place for you or any other woman,” she is equally emphatic:
  “Look Bob, there’s no time to give you a fast course on insect pathology, so let’s stop all the talk and get on with it!”
  Her presence is indeed crucial, as she discovers that two young queen ants hatched and flew away before the nest was bombed. If they're not found and dealt with, it could be the beginning of the end for humanity.

Biggest cringe moment: Arriving in New Mexico on a military transport plane, Pat’s dress gets caught as she climbs down the ladder from the cockpit, revealing some leg. Standing on the tarmac, Graham and Peterson are ogling her.
  Peterson: “She’s some doctor, huh?”
  Graham: “Yeah, if she’s the kind that takes care of sick people, I think I’ll get a fever real quick.”

Additional notes: After Them!, Joan (who is still alive as of this post), acted in only a relative handful of movies and TV shows before retiring in the late ‘50s.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Name: Prof. Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue)

Faith Domergue and Kenneth Tobey in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Prof. Joyce inspects the lab equipment as Pete makes his move.
Resume: Joyce is the head of the marine biology dept. at The Southeastern Institute of Oceanography, and in the words of her screen colleague, Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis), the “outstanding authority on marine biology” in the country.

Biggest screen moment: Joyce and Carter are brought in by the Navy to examine a huge piece of irradiated tissue that was caught on the fins of an atomic sub during a mysterious encounter in the middle of the Pacific ocean. After extensive examination, the team concludes that it came from an octopus, but one so huge as to be beyond belief. Their theory is borne out as ships begin disappearing and a man on a beach is crushed by some enigmatic thing. After there is no doubt about the threat from the colossal octopus, Joyce, Carter and Cmdr. Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey) head up a task force to deal with the threat. When depth charges fail to kill the beast, it emerges from the depths to wrap its tentacles around the Golden Gate Bridge. In the situation room, Joyce calmly and authoritatively tells a Navy Captain to go to red alert.

Biggest cringe moment: Earlier, when the scientists are still trying to determine the source of the tissue, Matthews corners Joyce in the lab. She responds by egging him on:
  “When you’re driving that atomic submarine of yours, do you have much time for romance?”
  “Even if I did have the time, where would I find the opportunity? You know, women aren’t allowed aboard a submarine.”
  “Poor boy, I thought the Navy was equipped for every contingency…”

Additional notes: In addition to It Came from Beneath the Sea, Faith starred in 3 other sci-fi movies released in 1955: Cult of the Cobra, The Atomic Man, and most memorably, This Island Earth (in which she also played a scientist).

From Hell It Came (1957)
Name: Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver)

John McNamara and Tina Carver in From Hell It Came (1957)
"Hmmm, I can't tell for sure, but I think part of the
problem is that knife sticking out of its chest."
Resume: Mason (no relation to Perry) is a member of a medical team sent by the “International Foundation” to a group of South Seas islands to investigate health hazards caused by atomic testing, and to treat the sick natives.

Biggest screen moment: With the help of colleagues Dr. William Arnold (Tod Andrews) and Prof. Clark (John McNamara), Mason digs up an unearthly, weirdly human-looking tree that has suddenly sprouted near their encampment. The natives warn them that it is the dreaded Tabanga, which has grown from the body of a young native man unjustly accused of murdering his own father, and executed by authority of the local witch doctor. A ceremonial knife is buried in the monster where its heart should be.
  Back at the lab, Terry finds the monster has a pulse, but it’s weakening. Disregarding Arnold’s suggestion to let it die, she makes an executive decision to stimulate its heart (?) with an experimental serum of her own making -- a decision she will soon regret.

Biggest cringe moment: Arnold is mad about the good doctor Mason, and wants to make her his wife and take her back to civilization. He pleads with her:
  “Terry, will you stop being a doctor first and a woman second? Let your emotions rule you, not your intellect.”
  “Bill, I live by my intellect and my reason. If I let my emotions run away, I wouldn’t be any good in my work.”
  Undeterred, Bill embraces her and they kiss. He asks her if she loves him.
  “I don’t love you.”
  “Then why did you kiss me back?”
  “I don’t know, my metabolism… it’s unconscious, involuntary…”

Additional notes: The same year as From Hell It Came was released, Tina also appeared in The Man Who Turned to Stone, about a group of scientists who stay young by draining the life out of unsuspecting women.

The Giant Claw (1957)
Name: Dr. Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday)

Mara Corday and Jeff Morrow in The Giant Claw (1957)
Sally and Mitch go alien bird hunting.
Resume: Caldwell is a mathematician and systems analyst who, at the beginning of the movie, is working with electronics engineer and test pilot Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) to calibrate new polar-based military radar systems and detect blind spots.

Biggest screen moment: When Mitch sees a UFO “as big as a battleship” shoot past his plane, no one believes him because the thing didn’t show up on radar. However, as more planes start crashing and reports come flooding in, it’s apparent that something big and dangerous is cruising the skies over North America.
  Sally comes up with an idea to check photographs from weather balloons, and sure enough, a huge, buzzard-like bird shows up in a batch. After analyzing one of the monster's feathers found in the wreckage of a plane, physicist Karol Noymann (Edgar Barrier) concludes that the creature is from another galaxy, and has an anti-matter shield around it that makes it impervious to all weapons. (!!)
  Caldwell uses her math expertise to help figure out a way to negate the shield. But her biggest “bad ass” moment comes when she and MacAfee discover the alien bird’s nest in a remote part of French Canada. There’s an egg in the nest, and they have to destroy it before another space buzzard hatches to terrorize the world. She picks up a rifle and aims. When MacAfee gives her a quizzical side-glance, she says matter-of-factly, “I’m from Montana…”

Biggest cringe moment: After they both survive a mid-air collision with the Giant Claw, MacAfee and Caldwell are called back to Washington. On the red-eye flight back east, MacAfee suddenly leans over and kisses her as she’s trying to get some shuteye. Caldwell is unusually composed:
  Caldwell: “Where did that come from?”
  MacAfee: “Left field maybe.”
  Caldwell: “I like baseball… Speaking of baseball and left field, somebody warned me you made up your own rules.”
  MacAfee: “Whoever said that is no friend of mine.”
  Caldwell: “But he’s a friend of mine.”

Additional notes: Mara Corday’s other sci-fi role in 1957 was in The Black Scorpion. She teamed up with Richard Denning, playing an American geologist, to battle giant scorpions freed from their underground lair by a series of earthquakes.


  1. Good essay! I know there's a lot more, but the Mara Corday scientist from GIANT CLAW is a favorite here.

    1. And a favorite of mine too -- she is unflappable (pun intended). :) Stay tuned to this blog for a follow up post on pioneering women astronauts from the '50s and '60s.