'Top Secret Rosies': Physics major works to bring screening of World War II's 'female computers' to Rowan


Rowan will host a screening of "Top Secret Rosies:The Female Computers of World War II" on Friday, April 29, in the auditorium of Bozorth Hall.

There's moxie. And then there's moxie.

When Emma Cortes thinks of her grandmother and her great aunt--two women, born in the Depression, with oodles of get-it-done, embrace-the-work, make-a-difference-in-the-world moxie--she's just in awe.

"They didn't let anything stop them. That's so amazing to me," Cortes, a Rowan University senior physics major, says. "I consider them superheroes. Their work was endless."

In the 1940s, Cortes' grandmother and great aunt--twin sisters Shirley Melvin and Doris Polsky--were "Top Secret Rosies," members of a group of 100 gifted female mathematicians whose work for the U.S. Army helped win World War II.

The women worked six days a week, around the clock in a clandestine ballistics lab at the University of Pennsylvania. From the bombing of Axis Europe to the assaults on Japanese strongholds, their work involved creating ballistics tables that ultimately proved crucial to Allied success during the war.

Further, their work as "human computers" led to the development of the ENIAC, the first electronic computer developed for the Army.

The women's efforts went virtually unnoticed for more than half a century until last fall, when documentary filmmaker LeAnn Erickson, a Temple University professor, produced "Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of World War II." (www.topsecretrosies.com).

Through the efforts of Cortes and Math Department Chair Larry Howe, Rowan will host a screening of "Top Secret Rosies" at Rowan on Friday, April 29, in the auditorium of Bozorth Hall. The event begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m. The screening begins at 6 p.m. and will conclude with a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker.

The event is free and open to the public.

President of Rowan's Physics Club, Cortes, 22, sees the screening as a chance to bring this important story to a wider audience. It's also, she says, a way to honor the memory of her grandmother, who passed away in 2009, and to pay tribute to her 85-year-old aunt.

Melvin and Polsky not only worked as "Top Secret Rosies" but also made names for themselves in the field of real estate. Together, they started Philadelphia's first female-run real estate company and the first successful integrated neighborhood in the city's Mount Airy section.

Cortes, who conducts biophysics research with Physics Professor Jeffrey Hettinger, aspires to attend Cooper Medical School of Rowan University to become a family doctor specializing in internal medicine.

Melvin and Polsky, she says, instilled a family legacy of smart, strong, achieving women, she says.

"They raised me with ideals of empowerment to women," says Cortes.

Though the "Top Secret Rosies" didn't receive recognition for years, the women went on to lead truly amazing lives, Cortes says.

"That they didn't get the recognition then didn't stop any of them. They all just kept doing more math and science," says Cortes, who has presented her research with Hettinger and regional and national conferences.

Melvin and Polsky attended an all-girls school that wouldn't allow them to take physics, a concept that Cortes can't fully grasp today.

"They had to go to a separate school to study physics," she says. "That just blows my mind."

Before she died, Cortes' grandmother was interviewed for the documentary. Her aunt, who also was interviewed, still lives in Philadelphia's Mount Airy neighborhood.

Cortes is proud, she says, of Erickson's documentary, which illustrates the sacrifices the Rosies made--and the bonds they shared.

"My grandmother spoke of those days fondly," says Cortes. "She was definitely very close with the women she worked with.

"The documentary is very respectful of them. LeAnn let them tell their story in a depth they weren't used to."

While she's excited to bring the documentary to Rowan, Cortes is hopeful some community members and World War II veterans will come to the screening as well.

"During other screenings, there have been World War II veterans in the audience and that opens up a really cool, really interesting dialogue," she says.

To view a trailer for "Top Secret Rosies," visit http://vimeo.com/18327205.