Recently American Eagle Company released a commercial that seemed to celebrate men having a positive self-image. The male models were not the typical male model. Many would have shopped in the “husky” department and most seemed to go against the standard image types. The advertisement seemed to emulate recent similar ads focusing on women… with one very big difference. The American Eagle commercials were an April Fool’s Day joke.
Stereotyping is a dangerous although sometimes comical practice. Comedians have relied on stereotypes for over a hundred years in telling a joke. While they may seem funny to many, the subjects of the stereotypes are often deeply hurt. Discrimination is not a laughing matter.
Women are one of the oldest targets for such stereotyping and low expectations. Even though no one is ever born without a woman being intricately involved in the process, society has for centuries and eons failed to properly respect the potential of the average female of the species.
Barbara Askins was born in the late 1930’s and subject to the expectations of the times. Women were supposed to get married, have children, and be content. Professions deemed acceptable for women were generally nursing and teaching. Born in the state of Tennessee, Barbara Askins complied with the stereotype for women of her time. She grew up married, and had children.
Then Barbara did something a bit out of the ordinary. She went back to school, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s of science from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Located in the mountainous beginnings of the Appalachian Mountains on the banks of the Tennessee River, Huntsville is home to the Marshall Space Flight Center. It was at Marshall that the Saturn V Rocket that propelled the USA into outer space was developed as a part of NASA. It is also at UAH that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has advanced weather labs for studying severe weather.
As a physical chemist, Barbara Askins was in a great location to work, a location that did not try to conform her into an age-old stereotype. It was at Marshall Space Flight Center that Barbara did some groundbreaking work. Her invention is one that has benefitted most of our lives although we probably do not know it. Barbara Askins is the inventor of the autoradiograph, a process in which “images on developed photographic emulsions can be significantly intensified by making the image silver radioactive and exposing a second emulsion to this radiation.”
If you have ever had an x-ray, and the doctor then told you something based upon that x-ray, then you should really thank Barbara Askins. Later in this series we will discuss the inventor of the x-ray itself, also a female inventor, but right now, we need to thank Barbara Askins. Ever since 1978 when she received her patent, the ability to read an x-ray has been greatly enhanced.
The value of any x-ray and the ability to see what is covered by skin is determined in a large part to the development of the x-ray film. Over exposure is seldom the problem; underexposure is quite common. With Askin’s technique, over ninety-six percent of x-rays that were previously considered to be under-exposed were now readable. This prevented the need for additional x-rays and radiation exposure via the x-ray to patients. Her process has also been used in the restoration of old photographs.
Maybe you are not someone who does scrapbooking or collects old pictures. If you are reading this, however, odds are you are alive and either have or will need an x-ray at some point. You may not have heard of Barbara Askins but you have benefitted from her work. We all have. Her technique was originally designed to restore photographs taken by satellites and astronauts. We have a better understanding of our bodies, our world, and outer space because of her.
Bringing things into focus is a part of education and living. Time often changes our perspective and that can be a very good thing. When she was first tasked with trying to salvage a group of photographs and negatives, no one expected Barbara Askins to become an inventor. Quite frankly, I doubt any of us reading this blog would classify ourselves as inventors. We are, though. We invent our lives each and every day. We need to use our living to bring into focus a brighter and clearer tomorrow. Together we can change the world. We just need to forget stereotypes and focus on making a better landscape of our lives.