Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

DR CHIEN-SHIUNG WU

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was in her early 30s when her work in nuclear fission attracted the attention of the United States government during World War II.  She was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University in New York City.  At the end of the war, she remained at Columbia as a research scientist.  She has been recognized as the “First Lady of Physics” and has received many honors, awards, and honorary degrees for her accomplishments.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was born on May 31, 1912 in Liu Ho, China.  Wu's parents enrolled her in a school that they had started, which only went through the fourth grade. In 1922, Wu went to boarding school in Suzhou and graduated at the top of her class in 1930. She graduated from the prestigious National Central University of Nanking in 1936, and after graduation she traveled to the United States to pursue graduate studies. She enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley where she studied physics and received her Ph.D. in 1940.  Two years later, she married Luke Yuan, a Chinese physicist and former classmate from U.C. Berkeley.  The coupled moved to the east coast, where Yuan taught at Princeton University in New Jersey and Wu split her teaching duties between Princeton University and Smith College in Massachusetts.

During World War II, Wu was asked to join the Manhattan Project at Columbia University, which was the Army’s secret project to develop the atomic bomb.  She helped develop a process to enrich uranium ore that produced large quantities of uranium as fuel for the bomb. 

After the war, she stayed at Columbia as a research assistant. In 1957, she and her colleagues Dr. Tsung-Dao Lee and Dr. Chen Ning Yang overthrew a law of symmetry in physics called the principle of conservation of parity.  Wu observed that there is a preferred direction of emission, which disproved what was then a widely accepted "law" of nature.  Her discovery about the law of parity was not recorded, and both Lee and Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics, but Dr. Wu was not included in the award.

Even though she did not receive the Nobel Prize, Wu received many other honors and awards.  She was named full professor at Columbia in 1958 and authored the book Beta Decay in 1965.  She was appointed as the first Pupin Professor of Physics in 1973.  Wu was the first woman elected to the American Physical Society as well as the first woman to receive the Cyrus B. Comstock Award of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  She was also a recipient of the Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific award, and became the first woman ever to be awarded an honorary doctorate from Princeton University. 

Wu continued to teach at Columbia University and conduct nuclear research until her retirement in 1981. After her retirement, she lectured widely and encouraged the participation of young women in scientific careers and became known as the "First Lady of Physics".  She died on February 16, 1997 in New York.

 

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Books:

  • Cooperman, Stephanie H. Chien-Shiung Wu: Pioneering Physicist and Atomic Researcher. Rosen Publishing Group, 2004. [for ages 9-12]

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