Gutsy Woman:

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

“It is shameful that there are so few women in science. [...] In China there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments (sic) yet she remains eternally feminine.” (May, 1963)

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was an experimental physicist who is best known for her work on the Manhattan Project. Known as the “First Lady of Physics,” Chien-Shiung taught at both Princeton and Columbia Universities and won multiple awards for her work. In 1957, her pivotal contribution to particle physics was totally ignored by the Nobel Prize committee and given only to the two men who had asked Chien-Shiung to join their team (to develop an experiment that proved their theory dealing with beta decay).

In 1958, her research helped answer significant biological questions concerning blood and sickle cell anemia. She was the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society (a not-for-profit membership organization of professionals in physics and related disciplines whose mission is the advancement and diffusion of knowledge of physics). This extraordinary woman had a number of “firsts” as she broke through glass ceilings in the U.S and overcame many gender and racial biases! (Cool, huh?)

Raised in a small fishing town north of Shanghai, Chien-Shiung was a middle child. Her father, Zhong-Yi, was an engineer who believed in educating girls, which was unusual at that time. She immigrated to the U.S. from China when she was 24 after attending Nanking University where she studied physics. Chien-Shiung graduated with top honors in 1934.

Encouraged to pursue graduate studies in the U.S., she traveled to Berkley’s University of California where she met the Nobel Prize winning professor Ernest Lawrence. Chien-Siung also met Luke Chia Yuan who influenced her to stay and obtain her PhD. Her doctoral research focused on radioactive isotopes.

The two young scientists were married in 1942. With anti-Asian attitudes rising dramatically (WWII) and the war in full swing, neither of their families was able to attend. Chien-Siung did not take her husband’s name and she had to point this out to students who tried to call her Professor Yuan. She became a U.S. citizen in 1954.

She earned many nicknames during her teaching years including “Queen of Nuclear Physics” and “Chinese Madame Curie”. Her students sometimes called her “the Dragon Lady” (after a comic strip character) because her standards were so high.

Chien-Siung won many awards during her lifetime, including the Comstock Prize in Physics. (She was the first woman ever to receive that award.) She was only the seventh woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1958. Chien-Siung also received the National Medal of Science for her contributions. In 1978, she was awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics.

Did you know?

1.) At MIT’s 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.”.

2.) She was the first woman hired as faculty in the Physics Department at Princeton—still an all-male school in the 1940s.

3.) Chien-Siung was the first woman awarded an honorary doctorate by Princeton University.

4.) She had an asteroid named after her in 1990.

5.) Chien-Siung was awarded the Bonner Prize (1975).

6.) In 1998, she was inducted into the American National Women’s Hall of Fame one year after her death

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