Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
Chien-Shiung Wu was born May 31, 1912, in a small fishing village just north of Shanghai, China, the second of three siblings. Her father was an engineer; her mother a teacher. Both her parents valued education and encouraged her to follow her passions. Although it was not common for girls to be educated during this time, Wu got her early education at the Mingde Women's Vocational Continuing School, a school started by her father who believed strongly that girls should receive an education.. Instead of playing outside like other children Wu spent her time listening to the newly-invented radio for knowledge and pleasure. She also enjoyed Chinese classics, poetry and western literature.
At the age of ten Wu moved from her hometown to go to the Suzhou Women's Normal School No. 2, which was a boarding school with classes for training teachers as well as for regular high school. The subjects in science slowly became a passion for Wu. In 1929, she graduated at the top of her class and was admitted to National Central University in Nanjing. Because government regulations required college students to work as a teacher for one year before beginning college courses, Wu spent her year teaching at a public school in Shanghai.
In 1934, Wu graduated from the University with a degree in physics. After graduation she became a researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Academia Sinica. Her supervisor Gu Jing-Wei, a female professor who had earned her PhD in the U.S., encouraged Wu to do the same. With the financial help of her uncle, Wu Zhou-Zhi, she sailed to the U.S. where she enrolled in the University of California Berkley in 1936. In 1940, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu graduated with a PhD in physics. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
While she was studying at Berkley Dr. Wu met Luke Chia-Liu Yaun, whom she married May 30, 1942. They then moved to the east coast where Dr. Wu taught physics at Smith College in North Hampton, Massachusetts and at Princeton University in New Jersey. She was the first woman to be hired as faculty in the Physics Department at Princeton. Shortly afterward Dr. Wu took a job at Columbia University in New York City and joined the Manhattan Project's Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories.. Project researchers were working on the creation of the atomic bomb. Dr. Wu's research included improving Geiger counters for the detection of radiation and the enrichment of uranium in large quantities. Like most physicists in the Project Dr. Wu distanced herself from it in later years because of its' destructive outcome.
After the end of World War II, Dr. Wu accepted a position as an associate research professor at Columbia where she would remain for the rest of her career. In 1952 she became an associate professor, making her the first tenured physics professor at the university. Dr. Wu became a full professor in 1958 and was named the Michael I. Pupin Professor of Physics in 1973. Her discoveries were important in physics but even crossed over into biology and medicine. Her contributions became important to certain studies on the molecular changes in red blood cells that cause sickle cell anemia. Dr. Wu was considered to be the top experimental physicist in the world. She also became renowned for her promotion of teaching STEM to all students regardless of gender.
While the list of Dr. Wu's honors and accolades is pages long, she never received the Nobel Prize. Many in the scientific world believe this is the greatest mistake ever made by the Nobel committee.
Dr. Wu died February 16, 1997, in New York City. In accordance with her wishes, her ashes were buried in the courtyard of the school founded by her father and which she attended as a girl.
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution