Chien-Shiung Wu was born on May 31, 1912 in Liuhe, China. Her mother, Fanhua Fan, was a teacher. Her father, Zhong-Yi Wu, was an engineer. He strongly believed in gender equality and opened one of the first girls’ schools in China. Chien-Shiung attended her father’s school and developed a love for math and science at a very young age. Her parents encouraged her to pursue her interests through high school, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1929.
Chien-Shiung attended college at the National Central University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in physics in 1934. After graduation, she taught at the National Chekiang University while building her experience in experimental research. Chien-Shiung studied under the guidance of female professor Jing-Wei Gu. Chien-Shiung gained confidence in her abilities by collaborating with another woman and reading about other women in the field. She said that learning about scientist Marie Curie at a young age significantly shaped her life and academic pursuits.
Jing-Wei strongly encouraged Chien-Shiung to complete her Ph.D. in the United States, where she could work with some of the most famous scientists in the world and learn more about American culture. In 1936, Chien-Shiung enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. While there, she met other Chinese students, including physicist Luke Chia-Lu Yuan, who helped her acclimate to life in a new country. Her research focused on cutting edge nuclear technology, which would prove valuable in her future career. Chien-Shiung earned her Ph.D. in 1940.
Chien-Shiung and Luke studied in the same department and remained friends. Over time the nature of their relationship changed, and they married in 1942.
Job opportunities were limited in California and anti-Asian attitudes increased with the start of World War II. Luke and Chien-Shiung moved to the East Coast in the hopes of expanding their careers. Luke joined the faculty at Princeton University and Chien-Shiung taught at Smith College, a women’s college. Chien-Shiung enjoyed her new job, but Smith did not have a research facility. After one year, Chien-Shiung accepted an offer from Princeton, which gave her access to world-class research spaces. Princeton was still an all-male school in the 1940s, and Chien-Shiung was the first female instructor on their faculty. Chien-Shiung often relied on her strong personality and impressive research skills to overcome the challenge of being one of the few women on campus.
Chien-Shiung’s work at Princeton was cut short when she received an invitation to join the Manhattan Project at Columbia University as a senior scientist. The Manhattan Project was a government-funded initiative to research and develop powerful atomic weapons. Creating the atomic bomb was so complex that it could not be completed by just one person. The Manhattan Project included scientists of many fields working independently and collaboratively in labs across the United States. Most of them had no direct connections to warfare technology or weapon development. Rather, their work was small pieces of a bigger puzzle. Chien-Shiung’s research focused on identifying a process to separate uranium metal through gaseous infusion, which was critical to transforming a bomb into an atomic bomb.
After the war, Chien-Shiung continued to work at Columbia as a member of faculty. She eventually became the first woman to hold a tenured faculty position in the University’s physics department. In 1947, Chien-Shiung gave birth to her and Luke’s only child, a boy named Vincent. As an adult, Vincent followed his parents’ example and worked as a physicist.
American immigration laws and Chinese political upheaval made it difficult for Chien-Shiung to remain connected to her homeland. She was unable to travel home and communicated with her family through letters. Travel in general was made difficult by her Chinese passport. In 1954, she decided to make her Chinese American status official by becoming a United States citizen.
Why should we not encourage more girls to [study] science?
Chien-Shiung’s research for the Manhattan Project helped established her as a leading expert in nuclear physics. Much of her work involved proving or disproving theories presented by other scientists. One of the most famous example was her research on the law of conservation of parity. Two physicists at Princeton, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, claimed they made a great discovery around this law. But most of the scientific community refused to believe they were correct. Chien-Shiung conducted an experiment that proved their theories were indeed valid. In response, the scientific community widely celebrated Tsung-Dao and Chen-Ning. In 1957, they received the Nobel Prize in Physics. Many people who knew Chien-Shiung’s work thought she should have received a Nobel Prize as well, given that her experiment proved that their ideas were correct.
Chien-Shiung believed that she was victim of industry-wide sexism. She was not the first female scientist to feel overlooked by the Nobel panel, nor was she the last. But Chien-Shiung did not allow this snub to prevent her from continuing her own research. By the 1960s and 1970s, the field started to officially recognize and celebrate her contributions. By working hard, she created a resume that even the most closed-minded people could not ignore. She won the National Academy of Sciences Cyrus B. Comstock Award in Physics in 1964, the National Medal of Science in 1975, and the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978, among other prestigious awards.
Chien-Shiung continued to research and teach in the Physics Department at Columbia University until 1981. In retirement, she focused her attention on encouraging young women to pursue a career in science and technology. She participated in educational programs for girls and young women and spoke openly about her personal struggle to earn recognition for her groundbreaking work.
She died of a stroke at her home in New York in 1997 and was buried in her homeland of China. Despite the challenges she faced in her lifetime, she is often described as the “First Lady of Physics” because of her significant contributions to the field.