This is the sixth in a series about Famous Women in STEM History. The goal of these articles is to encourage young women and girls to pursue a career in the STEM fields. I hope you share these stories so that others will hear the accomplishments of these women and be thus inspired to also find success in a STEM field.
Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American nuclear physicist who has been dubbed “the First Lady of Physics,” “Queen of Nuclear Research,” and “the Chinese Madame Curie.” Her research contributions include work on the Manhattan Project and the Wu experiment, “which contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation of parity.” During her career, she earned many accolades including the Comstock Prize in Physics (1964), the Bonner Prize (1975), the National Medal of Science (1975), and the Wolf Prize in Physics (inaugural award, 1978). Her book Beta Decay (1965) is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists. Wu died in 1997 at the age of 84.
After completing her Ph.D. in 1940 at Cal-Berkley, Wu married fellow former graduate student, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan on May 30, 1942, and the two moved to the East coast where she began work at Smith College. After a few years she accepted an offer from Princeton University as the first female instructor ever hired to join the faculty. In 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project at Columbia University and discovered a way “to enrich uranium ore that produced large quantities of uranium as fuel for the bomb.”
After leaving the Manhattan Project in 1945, Wu spent the rest of her career in the Department of Physics at Columbia as the undisputed leading experimentalist in beta decay and weak interaction physics. After being approached by two male theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, “Wu’s experiments using cobalt-60, a radioactive form of the cobalt metal” disproved “the law of parity (the quantum mechanics law that held that two physical systems, such as atoms, are mirror images that behave in identical ways).” Unfortunately, although this led to a Nobel Prize for Yang and Lee in 1957, Wu was excluded.
Wu was honored with many other accolades throughout her career:
- In 1958, she was the first woman to earn the Research Corporation Award
- The first woman to receive a Sc.D. from Princeton University (1958)
- The first woman to be a tenured professor of physics at Columbia (1958)
- Wu was the seventh woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences
- Wu received the John Price Wetherill Medal of the Franklin Institute (1962)
- The first woman to receive the National Academy of Sciences Cyrus B. Comstock Award in Physics (1964)
- Wu was named Scientist of the Year by Industrial Research Magazine (1974)
- The Bonner Prize (1975)
- The National Medal of Science (1975)
- Wu was the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society (1976)
- The Wolf Prize in Physics (inaugural award, 1978)
In 1990 the Chinese Academy of Sciences named Asteroid 2752 after her (she was the first living scientist to receive this honor) and five years later, Tsung-Dao Lee, Chen Ning Yang, Samuel C. C. Ting, and Yuan T. Lee founded the Wu Chien-Shiung Education Foundation in Taiwan for the purposes of providing scholarships to young aspiring scientists. In 1998 Wu was inducted into the American National Women’s Hall of Fame a year after her death.
- Her later research focused on the causes of sickle-cell anemia
- She was a huge advocate for promoting girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and lectured widely to support this cause
- Wu was aware of gender-based injustice and at an MIT symposium in October of 1964, she stated “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”
Source: Wikipedia and Biography.com
Sheri Yarbray is a CEO, the founder of Your Therapy Source LLC a home healthcare staffing company, a STEM entrepreneur, and proud mom. Sheri is passionate about delivering high quality home healthcare to patients, inspiring young women to move into STEM careers, and sharing ideas about managing a balance between a work and a home life. You can follow Sheri on LinkedIn @Sheri Yarbray
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