It’s that time of the week again! About a week ago in 1942, the Manhattan Project, which was a research and development of nuclear weapons initiative during World War II, began. If I had better planned my Women in History Crush Wednesdays, this post would probably have happened closer to the 73rd anniversary than today…better a week late than never I guess. Therefore, this week’s WCW is the “First Lady of Physics,” Chien-Shiung Wu. I never learned about Wu in school, not even in my AP Physics class, but had the luck to come across her on Google, and was blown away by her life story.
Born in Lui Ho, China on May 31st, 1912, Chien-Shiung Wu attended her father’s school, the Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School, until age nine when she moved to the Suzhou Women’s Normal School. There, Wu learned English and followed a curriculum based on Western education systems, but had to study math and science independently. Wu graduated from Suzhou in 1930 as her class’ valedictorian, then taught at the Public School of China in Shanghai for several years. In 1934, Wu earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the National Central University in Nanjing, which she used for the following two years as she taught x-ray crystallography at the Zhejiang University and researched at the Institute of Physics of the Academia Sinica. Wu’s parents, both teachers, were adamant about their daughter being well educated; after she college graduation, they encouraged her to move to the United States to pursue a doctorate.
In 1936, Wu began graduate study at the University of California at Berkeley campus under Nobel Prize winner Ernest O. Lawrence. At Berkeley, Wu studied with Emilio Segre and Robert Oppenheimer, whom she’d again work with during the war. In 1940, Wu received her doctorate in physics, specializing in nuclear fission. Following graduation, Wu taught for a year at Smith College, and then, due to wartime shortages of male teachers, was offered teaching positions at top tier universities, including MIT, Columbia, and Princeton. Wu accepted a non-research teaching position at Princeton, where she taught naval officers nuclear physics.
Early in 1944, Columbia University recruited Wu to the War Research Department, where she began research and testing for the Manhattan Project. For the project, Wu developed improved Geiger radiation level counters, a method of enriching uranium in which gaseous diffusion is used to separate the element into large quantities of isotopes to be used as fuel, and helped progress the work of Enrico Fermi. After the Manhattan Project ended, she continued working at Columbia, first as a research assistant and then as an associate professor of beta decay.
Wu began working with Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, renowned nuclear researchers, in 1956. Lee and Yang had theorized a flaw in the Parity Law, saying that based on weak force subatomic interactions, separating molecules would behave asymmetrically instead of the accepted, tandem behavior. Wu tested the two’s theory with the National Bureau of Standards, and proved their hypothesis by observing that K-meson particles didn’t act according to the principle of parity. Though Wu did all the experimental work, only Lee and Yang were awarded a Nobel Prize. She was, however, awarded the AAUW Achievement Award, Research Corporation Award, Cyrus B Comstock Award, National Medal of Science, and the Wolf Prize. For her work on both the Parity Law and the Unified Theory (with Richard Feynman and Murry Gell-Mann), Wu became well known and respected in the science community, gaining nicknames like the “First Lady of Physics,” “Chinese Marie Curie,” and “Madame Wu.”
Due to the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, Wu didn’t see her family after leaving China until the latter twentieth century. But in 1942, Wu married Chia-Liu “Luke” Yuan, whom she met while in graduate school at Berkeley. The couple had a son, Vincent Weichen, in 1947, and like his parents, Vincent grew up to be a nuclear scientist. In 1954 both Wu and Yuan became American citizens.
Over the course of her long career, Wu received many awards and became the “first woman to _____” in many fields. These included:
- Wolf Prize
- Comstock Prize in Physics
- National Medal of Science
- Research Corporation Award
- John Price Wetherill Medal from the Franklin Institute
- Tom W Bonner Prize from the American Physical Society
- Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women
- Chi-Tsin Achievement Award from the Taiwanese Chi-Tsin Culture Foundation
- first winner of the Wolf Prize
- first scientist to have an asteroid named after them while still living
- first woman to hold an honorary doctorate from Princeton, Yale, and Harvard
- first woman to win a National Academy of Sciences‘ Comstock Prize
- first woman to teach in Physics Department at Princeton
- first woman to win Research Corporation Award
- first woman to be president of the American Physical Society
- first woman to be the Pupin Professor Emerita of Physics at Columbia
- seventh woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences
- [believed to be] only person of Chinese descent working on Manhattan Project
- first Chinese-American elected into National Academy of Sciences
- first Chinese-American educator to visit Red China in the 1970’s
- member of the National Academy of of Sciences
- member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Fellow of the American Physical Society
- Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
- named Scientist of the Year in 1972 by Industrial Research Magazine
Wu continued to conduct nuclear research at Columbia until 1981. After retiring, she lectured internationally about the importance of women in scientific careers and heavily criticized gender barriers and discrimination. Wu died on February 18th, 1997 in New York, New York due to a stroke. She is remembered in physics classrooms globally via her book, Beta Decay, and serves as an inspiration to women pursuing STEM careers and educational opportunities.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays!