Women’s History Month: Physics Pioneer Chien-Shiung Wu

Known as the “First Lady of Physics” and Queen of Nuclear Research, Chien-Shiung Wu was born in China in 1912 and came to the United States in 1936 to enroll in the doctorate program in nuclear physics at the University of Michigan.  After learning that women were discriminated against at the University of Michigan, she instead enrolled at the University of California Berkley.

Chien-Shiung Wu in 1958 at Columbia University

During her earlier life in China, she had been an exceptional student whose love of learning had been encouraged by her father. By the time she arrived in the United States, she had already distinguished herself in her undergraduate academic work and later during post-graduate research. At Berkley, she benefited from an association with some of the top physicists in the country at that time. After one year at Berkley, she received a scholarship to Caltech. She completed her doctorate in 1940 and moved to the east coast where she ultimately taught at Princeton.  In 1944, she joined the Manhattan Project where she began work on beta decay and uranium enrichment.

During the 1960’s, while at Columbia University, Wu began working with two other Chinese American scientists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang conducting research in the field of particle physics. Wu developed an experiment disproving a hypothetical physical law called the conversation of parity. The Wu Experiment paved the way for her two associates to earn the Nobel Prize, an award for which she was overlooked, she believed, because of her gender. In 1978, her work was finally recognized when she received the Wolf Prize, a $100,000 international award given to artists and scientists for “achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among people…irrespective of nationality, race, color, religion, sex or political views.”

She continued advancing her work in nuclear physics for decades and later involved herself in advocating for women’s rights.  She was never able to return to China and died in 1997 from a stroke.

Contributed by Adrian Clark, Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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