Chien-Shiung Wu: The “First Lady of Physics”

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in a small town near Shanghai on May 31, 1912. The only daughter of three, Wu’s mother and father strongly believed in gender equality and wanted their daughter to receive a good education. In fact, Wu’s father, an engineer, felt so strongly about this that he opened one of the first all-girls elementary schools in China. There, Wu developed a strong love for math and science. With the support of her parents, she pursued her interests into high school and graduated top of her class in 1929. 

Following her studies, Wu worked as a research assistant, but she was encouraged by her supervisor to pursue advanced education in the United States. In 1936, Wu enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, completing her PhD, which focused on uranium fission products. In 1945, Wu found herself working in the Department of Physics at Colombia as the leading experimentalist in beta decay and weak interaction physics. Here, she was approached by two male physicists, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. Knowing of her expertise, Lee and Yang asked Wu to devise an experiment to prove a theory that they had regarding the law of conservation of parity. The experiment resulted in Lee and Yang receiving the Nobel Prize in 1957—and Wu’s work was not acknowledged. 

Despite this, Wu continued to make significant and revolutionary contributions to her field and won many awards—including the National Medal of Science and the first honorary doctorate awarded to a woman. During her career, Wu was an outspoken critic of gender discrimination in the field of science, famously stating at an MIT symposium in 1964: “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for masculine or feminine treatment.” Retiring in 1981, Wu spent the remainder of her life devoted to becoming a role model and advocating for young women scientists. 

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