I love stories of women who overcome the odds to make strides in areas where women are not usually allowed. Since this is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I wanted to share the story of Chien-Shiung Wu, an amazing woman who contributed much to scientific discovery.
Her uncle assisted by financing her trip to America and she arrived in San Francisco in 1936. Her plans to continue to Michigan with a friend and study at the University of Michigan were derailed when Wu discovered that women in Michigan were not allowed to use the front entrance but had to go around back. Instead, Wu chose to attend the more liberal University of California, Berkeley.
|Chien and Lewis
Photo by Knottinghill
At Berkeley, Wu met Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, another physicist, who would later become her husband. Yuan introduced her to several very influential physicists and Raymond T. Birge, the head of the physics department offerend her a place in the graduate school even though the year had already started. Wu made friends with Margaret Lewis and others, and settled in to life in America and the school.
|Wu and Yuan Wedding
Photo by Knottinghill
In 1940, Wu completed her doctorate, and in 1942 she married Yuan. Unable to find a research position, Wu accepted a physics teaching position at Princeton and at Smith College. Wu was the first female professor in the physics department of Princeton.
In 1944, Chien-Shiung Wu became the only Asian to join the Manhattan Project. She work in the Subsitute Alloy Marerials (SAM) laboratories. One of the men working on the nuclear reactor recalled Wu’s doctoral paper, which hadn’t been published but was on the needed subject. He went to her room to retrieve the draft of her paper. She was able to help figure out the problem with the reactor and help with producing enriched uranium for the bomb. They wanted to publish her paper but she refused at the time, fearing the research would fall into the wrong hands.
|Chien at Columbia U.
At the end of the war, Wu took a position at Columbia University and studied beta decay. She made several contributions, and was able to confirm Enrico Fermi’s theory of beta decay, something that had not been confirmed prior to her studies.
|Wu's parity experiment
Throughout her life Chien-Shiung Wu received many awards. They included the National Medal of Science, the Comstock Prize, and the first honorary doctorate awarded to a woman at Princeton University. In 1978, she won the Wolf Prize in physics. She was the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society. She wrote the book, Beta Decay, (1965) which is still used as a standard reference for nuclear physicists.
|Wu honored, Curie award
Photo by Amanda Phingbohipakkiya
Chien-Shiung Wu was an amazing woman who overcame great odds to achieve all she did. She paved the way for woman in the field of science and physics, and was often compared to Marie Curie. Her actual list of achievements and awards are more than I can list here.
An interesting note - After I had written this post and scheduled it, I went to the post office to mail a package. On the counter, they had an ad with the newest stamps being released. There was a stamp honoring Chien-Shiung Wu. I was so surprised. I probably babbled to the postal worker about writing the blog post about her and what an amazing woman she was. If you're in the post office, take a look at that stamp.
Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website: nancyjfarrier.com.