The Amazing Story of the First Lady of Physics

Five months after China ended 5,000 years of monarchy and became a republic, a girl named Chien-Shiung Wu was born. As a grown woman, she earned nicknames like the “Chinese Marie Curie,” “Madame Wu,” and the “Dragon Lady” by her students at Columbia University. This is the amazing story of the “First Lady of Physics.”

Photograph of Chien-Shiung Wu, the First Lady of Physics, at a bank of equipment

Early Life

Born on May 31, 1912, Chien-Shiung (pronounced Chen Shoong) Wu was the only daughter and middle child of three. Her parents were, Zhong-Yi and Fanhua Fan. They lived in Liuhe, a small town near Shanghai, China. Wu’s parents wanted their daughter to study science and mathematics, but no schools in China admitted females.

So her father (an engineer by training) started one of the first schools in China for girls, the Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School. He served as headmaster and her mother worked as a teacher.

At 11, Wu continued her education at the boarding school, Suzhou Women’s Normal School Number 2. Students who attended the “normal school” (teacher-training college) wanted to go to college. When she finished school, government regulations required that she teach for a year.

Wu served as a teacher at the Public School of China, in Shanghai in 1929.

Higher Education

She enrolled at one of China’s oldest and most prestigious universities, Nanjing University (National Central University). She started with a mathematics major. But inspired by Madame Curie, Wu quickly switched to physics. She earned a B.S. Degree with top honors in 1934.

She taught for a year and worked in a physics laboratory at the Academia Sinica. It was at Academia Sinica where she conducted her first research and experiments in X-ray crystallography. Her mentor, Jing-Wei Gu, a female professor, recommended she pursue graduate studies in the United States.

Move to the U.S.

In 1936, Wu received an acceptance from the Michigan State University. She took a steamship to the United States with her friend, Dong Ruofen, a female chemist. They landed in San Francisco.

Wu visited the University of California at Berkley. There she met Professor Ernest Lawrence (1939 Nobel Prize winner) and another Chinese physics student, Luke Chia Yuan (her future husband). The two talked her into staying at Berkley. She completed her Ph.D. in physics with honors in 1940.

Marriage & Career

She married fellow graduate student, Luke Chia Yuan on May 30, 1942. They moved to the East coast. Yuan worked at Princeton University and Wu at Smith College. It wasn’t long before Wu became the first female instructor ever hired at Princeton University. She taught at Smith and Princeton from 1942 to 1944.

Wu gave birth to their son, Vincent Wei-Cheng Yuan, in 1947. Vincent followed in his parents’ footsteps and became a physicist when he grew up.

In 1944, Wu joined the research staff at Columbia University and began work on the Manhattan Project. The top-secret Manhattan Project helped the United States develop the atomic bomb during World War II.

Her work helped create the process for separating uranium metal into the U-235 and U-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion.

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Unrecognized for Nobel Prize

She left the Manhattan Project in 1945. Wu spent the rest of her career in the Department of Physics at Columbia. She was the leading experimentalist in beta decay and weak interaction physics. Two colleagues, theoretical physicists, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang asked Wu to help design experiments to test their theory that the Law of Conservation of Parity did not hold true during beta decay. Wu’s experiments and observations proved the “law” did not hold. She had discovered parity nonconservation. Her test became known as the Wu experiment. Lee and Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics. Gender discrimination meant Wu was “overlooked” by the Nobel Prize Committee.

Firsts

In 1958, Wu became the first Chinese-American elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1967, she served as the first female president of the American Physical Society. She won several awards and honors throughout her lifetime, including the National Medal of Science and the Comstock Prize.

Legacy

Wu retired in 1981 but gave many lectures in the U.S. and China, inspiring the younger generations to pursue science, technology, engineering and math education.

Wu died on February 16, 1997 in New York City at 84 after suffering a stroke. They buried her ashes in the courtyard of the Mingde School in China that she had attended as a girl.

Wu’s book titled Beta Decay (published 1965) is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists.

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Featured on U.S. Stamps in February 2021, she joined a short list of physicists, including Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

An Amazing Story

Chien-Shiung Wu didn’t shy from the many obstacles on her journey to become the First Lady of Physics. Gender discrimination would have kept her from school had she been born earlier or to different parents. It certainly kept her from the Nobel Prize. A strong woman, she persisted.

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