Chien-Shiung Wu, “The First Lady of Physics”

Often referred to as “the Chinese Madame Curie” or “the first lady of physics” in the scientific community, Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) radically changed our view of the structure of the universe. Yet she is little known by the general public today. Had she won the Nobel Prize many felt she deserved, the late physicist would no doubt be as famous as her French-Polish predecessor. Although the renowned Swedish medal leaves a conspicuous gap, the list of her accomplishments, awards, honors and historic firsts is long and distinguished.

A Culture of Female Oppression

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Luihe, China in 1912. Still little more than an ideal in the West, notions of gender equality were considered foreign concepts and even less acceptable in China than in Europe or North America. In fact, foot binding was only finally officially outlawed in the year of Professor Wu’s birth. The odds against Chien-Shiung Wu attending elementary school, much less university, were far greater than elsewhere.

An Encouraging Father

As is so often the case, however, in the life stories of pioneering women scientists, her father played a key role in beating those odds. A teacher and an enlightened man, he had opened the first school for girls in China. He encouraged his daughter’s academic interests and believed she could do as well as any boy—he had, after all, named her Chien-Shiung, which means “strong hero.” Later when she was training to be a teacher herself, she discovered her fascination for science. She feared that her studies had not prepared her for university-level chemistry, physics, and math, and she was ready to abandon her pursuit of science. Her father’s response was to obtain textbooks and tell her she was perfectly capable of learning the necessary material for the entrance exams on her own. Fortunately for science, she did just that and obtained her degree in physics from China’s National Central University in 1934.

A Life-Changing Voyage

In 1936 Professor Wu would journey far from home to complete her studies, never imagining that she would not see her family again for eight long years. She was originally headed to the University of Michigan in the USA to pursue her PhD, but landing in California, she made the acquaintance of the physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Ernest Lawrence. A member of the UCLA Berkeley faculty, Professor Lawrence encouraged the gifted young woman to stay in California and study under him. Two milestones occurred in Professor Wu’s life during her time at Berkeley: She obtained her PhD in 1940 and married fellow scientist Luke Yuan.

The First in a History of Firsts

The newlyweds moved to the East Coast and, after teaching briefly at another school, Professor Wu became the first female instructor at Princeton University. By then she knew she would not be leaving the United States anytime soon. Japan had attacked China, the war had begun in Europe, and America would be entering the conflict shortly. Like other exiles of the era, she realized the only thing she could do for her family and her country was to throw herself into her research to help win the war. She moved to Columbia University and became part of the crucial, ultra-secret Manhattan Project. Involving thousands of the world’s top scientists working under the strictest security conditions and under enormous pressure to create the atom bomb before the Nazis, the Manhattan Project has gone down in history and Professor Wu made history with it. She was one of the very few women researchers at the highest echelons of the project and she is also thought to have been the first and only Chinese scientist on the team.

The Elusive Nobel

After the war, Professor Wu gave birth to a son and, after so many long years, was finally able to visit her family in China. She remained at Columbia University where she became one of the world’s foremost authorities in a specialized branch of nuclear physics called beta decay. In the early 50s she began working with researchers Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee to disprove a physics theory that was still accepted as a law of nature by most scientists. That theory, referred to as conservation of parity, posited that the particles involved in nuclear reactions would not disperse in any particular direction. Dr. Wu’s ingenious experiment proved that, in certain subatomic reactions, the particles did indeed have a bias in the way they dispersed. She and her collaborators had shaken the very foundations of physics.

Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1957. To the shock of much of the scientific community, Chien-Shiung Wu was not named with the two men. One explanation was that, as an experimentalist, her work was considered less important the work of the two theoreticians. Another explanation, which many believe to be more accurate, was that she was not awarded a Nobel Prize because of her gender.

Inspiring Women Scientists

Although she may have been privately disappointed, Professor Wu made little of the matter publicly. She went on to write a book on beta decay that would remain the definitive text on the subject decades after it was published. She made more discoveries, won numerous prestigious prizes and in 1975 made history once again when she became the first female president of the American Physical Society. Professor Wu retired from teaching in 1981 but continued research on a number of subjects including the molecular changes in human cells caused by sickle cell anemia and in 1991 she became the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her. Professor Wu died in 1997, leaving a legacy of accomplishments for science and women in science. Throughout her retirement, Professor Wu also remained a tireless advocate for more women in the scientific professions. When asked about the difficulties of combining motherhood and family with a research career, her humorous reply is worth noting because it so succinctly conveys both her down-to-earth realism and her unceasing passion: 

The only thing worse than coming home from the lab to a sink full of dirty dishes is not having gone to the lab at all
For Women in Science

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