Wu, physicist

Women’s History Month Profiles: Chien-Shiung Wu, Nuclear Physicist

During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of female innovators and history makers like Chien-Shiung Wu, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.

Born: May 31, 1912, Liuhe, China
Died: Feb. 16, 1997, New York City, U.S.
Best known for: Her involvement in the Manhattan Project and her contributions to helping prove a theory regarding the behavior and decay of radioactive atoms

Chien-Shiung Wu was ignored by the Nobel Prize Committee in 1957 for her contribution to the field of physics that has since earned her the nickname the “First Lady of Physics.”

Born in a small fishing town near Shanghai, China, Wu attended Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School, a school her father started during a time when education for girls was not common. She continued her education studying physics at the National Central University (now known as Nanjing University) in Nanking, China. She graduated at the top of her class and continued her education in the U.S., attending the University of California, Berkeley and earning her Ph.D. in physics in 1940.

Two years later, Wu married Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, who she had met at Berkeley. Eager to get married, the pair carried on with the ceremony even though neither of their families could attend because World War II was raging through the Pacific. Once wed, the couple moved to the East Coast, where Wu taught physics at Smith College in Massachusetts and Princeton University in New Jersey — the first woman hired as a faculty member in the physics department. In 1944, she took a job at Columbia University in New York City and joined the Manhattan Project, where scientists were conducting research to aid in creating the atomic bomb. There, her work included separating uranium metal into uranium-235 and uranium-238 isotopes and developing improved methods for measuring nuclear radiation levels.

Wu and her husband had a son, Vincent Yuan in 1947 who later also became a nuclear scientist. In 1958, four years after becoming a U.S. citizen, Wu was promoted to full professor at Columbia. She was named the Michael I. Pupin Professor of Physics at the university in 1973 and, in 1975, her pay was finally raised to be equal to that of her male colleagues.

Some of Wu’s most important discoveries and contributions include the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi’s 1933 theory of “beta decay,” a concept which attempts to describe how radioactive atoms become more stable and less radioactive over time. In 1956, physicists Tsung-Dao Lee (Columbia University) and Chen Ning Yang (Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey) asked Wu to create an experiment to test their theory of the conservation of parity, the idea that identical nuclear particles act alike and did not apply to beta decay. Her experiment supported their theory, and was even later dubbed the “Wu Experiment,” but in 1957, Lee and Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work with no mention of Wu.

Still, Wu continued to be a leader in physics, with notable research contributions that even crossed into the fields of biology and medicine (including the treatment of sickle cell disease).

Despite not getting the recognition she deserved for the Nobel Prize, Wu received several other awards and recognitions, including being only the seventh woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1958, receiving the Comstock Prize in Physics from the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, becoming the first woman president of the American Physical Society in 1975 and receiving the first Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978. Wu was also the first woman to earn an honorary doctorate from Princeton University.

Wu retired from Columbia in 1981 and died of a stroke at the age of 84 in New York City in 1997. Her ashes are buried in China in the courtyard of the Mingde School where she began her education.

In 2021, the U.S. Postal Service issued a special stamp to honor Wu on Feb. 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

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