Actor and playwright Ellen Denny is on a mission to tell the world about her great great aunt Harriet Brooks.
Growing up, Ellen knew there was a scientist in her family, but it wasn’t until she read Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist by Geoffrey Rayner-Canham and Marelene Rayner-Canham that she began to understand who her great great aunt truly was, and what she was able to accomplish. As an established theatre actor curious to try playwriting, Harriet’s story of perseverance and sacrifice was the igniting spark for Ellen to write her first play, entitled Wonder. Now, more than four years into the creation process, her passion for telling this story has only increased…
Ellen soon discovered the ‘scientist in her family’ was in fact a trailblazer – Harriet was the first Canadian woman to work in nuclear physics.
Under the mentorship of Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford, she earned her Masters at McGill University, which in 1901 made her the first woman to do so at the University. She went on to work internationally with other Nobel physicists including J. J. Thomson and Marie Curie. Harriet’s research career came at a fascinating time in scientific history, when radioactivity had just been discovered. Harriet referred to this mysterious phenomenon as an ‘emanation’ as she observed what we now call nuclear transmutation. She was among the first to discover radon and attempt to determine its atomic mass, and is known for discovering atomic recoil.
To scientists working today, Harriet’s name may sound familiar. Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (Chalk River, Ontario) the foremost centre for nuclear research in Canada, recently named an $113-million research facility in her honour. As a passionate teacher, Harriet would perhaps be even more thrilled by the internship program that bears her name, which supports diverse youth interested in science (established by SciXchange at Ryerson University).
While Harriet’s story is unique in what she was able to achieve, the glass ceiling she encountered as an ambitious woman in science was not. Her bright career ended abruptly upon her marriage at the age of 31.
Was it societal pressure that drove Harriet to leave her life’s work behind to start a family?
“Wonder seeks to explore this question without judgement for the choice Harriet made,” says Denny, “but it’s hard not to imagine what other mysteries she would have uncovered had she received support as a woman in science, to pursue both her career and raise a family.”
The choice of either-or when it comes to family and career is one that many women in science still face today, something that desperately needs to change. While studies on gender equity in STEM – packed with graphs, charts and statistics – are effective, Ellen sees Wonder as an alternative way to discuss the problem, by tapping into a different part of the human psyche.
“I hope by bringing this story to the stage, to create empathy for the barriers women face, and to make folks think about how we can build better workplaces for right now,” says Denny. “We need solutions that support women to continue to pursue STEM careers, whether or not they decide to become mothers.”
Before Wonder can reach its world premiere, the script will be honed through a workshop – the theatre equivalent of going into the lab for testing – with a team of professional artists this February in Toronto, Canada.
When asked why it’s important to tell this story in 2018, Denny is clear: “We need to give voice to women because we can’t allow history to be written from one perspective any longer…Wonder is a way to honour Harriet and all of the women who paved the way to get us to where we are.”
This new play has the potential to inspire not only the future generation of women in STEM, but those who are in positions of power to implement the changes needed to achieve gender equity.
There are so many young Harriets out there who need it.
Wonder is currently in the fundraising stage for the workshop in February 2019, which will take place in Toronto, just over 2 hours away from Harriet’s birthplace. If you or your business would like to help bring Harriet’s story to life, the team would very much appreciate your support in this crucial phase of development. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow along on social media at @wondertheplay on Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates. #wondertheplay