Hidden Figures of Innovation: Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Wednesday, March 31, 2021 By: Monica M Smith
Club Historian Monica Smith highlights the life and career of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, who was one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century.

Today, in honor of Women’s History Month—and in light of the sadly necessary #StopAsianAmericanHate movement—I would like to highlight the life and career of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, who was one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century and is sadly overlooked. I’ve personally dubbed her “the Chinese-American Marie Curie.” This year, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu is featured on a special US Postal Service Forever stamp, one of three issued by the USPS in 2021 to honor the achievements and culture of Asian Americans. It’s especially meaningful to me to present her story today because my father, Ray Smith, who was a professor of Asian history and loved Chinese history and culture, passed away two years ago on March 31.

Born May 31, 1912, Chien-Shiung Wu was raised with her two brothers in a small town that is now part of the Shanghai metro area in China. Their father was an unusual advocate for girls’ education who had founded the Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School that she attended. Wu studied physics at National Central University in Nanjing, graduating at the top of her class in 1934. After graduation she worked in a lab for another woman physicist, Dr. Jing-Wei Gu, who encouraged her to continue her education in the United States.

So, in 1936, with financial support from her uncle, Wu emigrated by ship to San Francisco and ended up earning her PhD in nuclear fission four years later at the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked with Nobel-winning physicist Ernest Lawrence.

At Berkeley Wu met fellow Chinese physicist Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, who she married in 1942, while World War II was raging on and neither of them could communicate with their families back in China. A grandson of the first President of the Republic of China, Yuan Shikai (1912-1916), Wu’s husband Luke Yuan had his own successful career as an experimental physicist at RCA and Brookhaven National Lab. In 1947, they had one son named Vincent, who also became a nuclear scientist and works at the Los Alamos National Lab.

After earning her PhD, Dr. Wu took teaching positions first at Smith College, then Princeton University, and finally Columbia University where she joined the Manhattan Project in 1944. Famously—or infamously—Manhattan Project researchers were working towards the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II. Wu’s research included improving Geiger counters for the detection of radiation and the enrichment of uranium in large quantities. Among her important contributions to physics was the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi’s 1933 theory of beta decay [how radioactive atoms become more stable and less radioactive]. Her book on this topic is still a classic reference in nuclear physics.

In 1956, her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee (also at Columbia) and Chen Ning Yang (at Princeton)—who both also happened to be born in pre-Revolutionary China—had jointly proposed a theory that would disprove a then-widely accepted law of physics called the “Parity Law.” The law of parity stated that all objects and their mirror images behave the same way, but with the left hand and right hand reversed. Drs. Yang and Lee asked Dr. Wu to create an experiment to prove the old theory wrong and theirs right. Dr. Wu agreed and worked on experiments at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) in Washington, DC.  Wu's experiments proved that identical nuclear particles do not always act alike. “The achievement opens the way to a whole new set of explanations of the atom, the world and the cosmos,” the New York Herald Tribune trumpeted on January 16, 1957, comparing its significance to Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity. “Her work, you now see it integrated into what is called the Standard Model of particle physics.”

Most famous for the “Wu Experiment,” her research also crossed over into biology and medicine, included studying the molecular changes in red blood cells that cause sickle-cell disease. Dr. Wu achieved many “firsts.” She was the first woman president of the American Physical Society; the first woman hired to the Physics faculty at Princeton and also the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton; and the first female recipient of the National Academy of Sciences’ Comstock Prize. She was also the first person, man or woman, to win the prestigious Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978. Dubbed “The First Lady of Physics,” Dr. Wu was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1958, received the National Medal of Science in 1975, and even had an asteroid named after her—2752 Wu Chien-Shiung.

However, it is a deplorable professional snub that she did not receive the Nobel Prize for her successful experiment that proved the theory of colleagues Yang and Lee, who shared the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for “their penetrating investigation of the so-called parity laws which has led to important discoveries regarding the elementary particles.” Many people believe Dr. Wu was overlooked simply because she was a woman.

A great quote from Dr. Wu: “It is shameful that there are so few women in science…In China, there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men.” —As quoted in “Queen of Physics,” Newsweek (20 May 1963). 

In 1954, Wu became a U.S. citizen, and did not return to her homeland until 1973—37 years after she had arrived in America. Sadly, her uncle and a brother were killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and her parents’ tombs there were also destroyed. Dr. Wu passed away in New York City on February 16, 1997. Her ashes are buried with her husband’s in the courtyard of her father’s Mingde School in China.

To read more:
• AAUW.com. “Chien-Shiung Wu Overlooked for Nobel Prize.” American Association of University Women.
• Benczer-Koller, Noemie. Chien-Shiung Wu, 1912-1997: A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 2009.
• Forman, Paul. “The Fall of Parity.” The Physics Teacher (May 1982): 281-288.
• Manhattan Project National Historical Park. “Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, The First Lady of Physics.” National Park Service.
• National Science Foundation. “Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997).”  
• Smeltzer, Ronald K. “Chien-Shiung Wu, Physicist, Columbia University.” Atomic Heritage Foundation.

[Attached photo from: Acc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives]