Nicknamed the “First Lady of Physics” and the “Chinese Madam Curie,” Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu is the perfect example of how an intelligent woman can influence the world.
Born in 1912 near Shanghai, China, when it was uncommon to educate girls, Wu’s father believed education was important for everyone, and started his own school where his daughter could attend.
Wu went on to study Physics at the National Central University (later Nanjing University), where she graduated at the top of her class in 1934.
After graduation, Wu began working in a physics laboratory, where her advisor was so impressed with her skill, she was encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. in America. With some help from her uncle, Wu arrived in San Francisco in 1936, ready to take on the new world.
Wu earned her Ph.D. in Physics in 1940 from the University of California at Berkeley, under advisor Ernest Lawrence (who won the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics).
While there, she married another Physicist, Luke Yuan (their son Vincent Yuan also became a Physicist).
Unable to find work as a researcher, Wu moved to the East Coast and began teaching at Princeton University and Smith College. She joined the Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Lab at Columbia University in 1944, becoming a part of the infamous nuclear weapons team, the Manhattan Project. Wu is believed to be the only Chinese American to work on the project.
Wu’s contribution to the Manhattan project helped develop the process to split Uranium into its radioactive isotope, Uranium-238 and improve Geiger counters, which measure nuclear radiation levels.
After World War II, Wu took a position at Columbia University, where she stayed until her death in 1997, and began researching beta decay — a form of radioactive decay.
While there, she was approached by two other Chinese-born American physicists, who asked Wu to help them disprove the “Law of Conservation of Parity,” a hypothetical law in the field of particle physics.
Using an isotope of Cobalt that undergoes beta decay (her specialty), Wu designed and implemented an experiment disproving the “Law of Conservation of Parity” for weak nuclear reactions.
Her colleagues won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for their theoretical work, but Wu’s experimental contribution was not rewarded until 1978, when she won the first ever Wolf Prize in Physics.
Wu had an extraordinary career, with contributions in the fields of particle physics, quantum physics, and even medicine (with research contributing to our understanding of sickle-cell disease).
She was the first Chinese-American to serve in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the first female Physics instructor and female recipient of an honorary doctorate at Princeton University, and the first female to serve as President of the American Physical Society (1975).
Wu also won many awards, including the 1960 Achievement Award from the American Association of University Women, the 1964 Comstock Prize in Physics from the National Academy of Sciences, the 1975 Bonner Prize from the American Physical Society, and the 1975 National Medal of Science.
Wu was a brilliant woman, whose legacy is still seen today. Her passion and perseverance awarded her some of the greatest honors in her field. “The First Lady of Physics” will always serve as a symbol of what women can accomplish.