By Amanda C. Lee
For International Women’s Day last year, my social studies class was given the task of presenting about an influential woman who made strides towards achieving gender equity. My partner and I scoured the internet for the strong women who fought for feminism, finding many viable options. Among such options, I read about Chien-Shiung Wu, who I will also be telling you about in this post.
Early Life & Education
Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Liu Ho, China, on May 31, 1912. She was the middle child, and the only daughter among three children. Education played a significant role in Wu’s early life. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was an engineer. They encouraged Wu to pursue a career in science and mathematics, surrounding her with such books, magazines, and papers as she grew up. She received elementary education from Mingde Women’s Vocational Continuing School, which was founded by her father. She later transferred to Suzhou School for Girls, in the Normal School teaching program. In 1929, Wu graduated at the top of her class, and enrolled in the reputable Nanjing University. She initially pursued mathematics, but Marie Curie inspired her to switch her major to physics.
Afterwards, Wu worked as a teacher at the National Chekiang University in Hangzhou, and conducted experimental research in X-ray crystallography under the mentorship of Jing-Wei Gu. Dr. Gu had received her PhD in the United States, and encouraged Wu to do the same. In 1936, Wu enrolled in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. Wu’s graduate work focused on uranium fission products, and in 1940, she received her PhD in physics. In 1942, Wu married one of her classmates, Luke Chia-Liu Yuan. They moved together to the East coast, where Wu worked at Smith College for a few years, before accepting a teaching offer from Princeton University.
In 1944, Columbia University recruited Wu as part of the Manhattan Project, where she researched radiation detection and uranium enrichment. Enrico Fermi, the “architect of the atomic bomb,” had published his theory of beta decay in 1934, but a following experiment from another physicist suggested variance in Fermi’s findings. As a result, Wu decided to repeat the experiment. Her findings displayed the first documented confirmation of Fermi’s theory of beta decay.
In 1956, two theoretical physicists, Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, approached Wu, requesting help in questioning The Law of Conservation of Parity –an accepted “law of nature” at the time. In an experiment designed by Wu, the three were able to disprove the law, uprooting what had been considered fact for over 30 years. Both Lee and Yang received the Nobel Prize for Physics for these findings, but Wu remained unrecognized for her contribution until 1978, when she received the Wolf Prize. She continued her research and teaching at Columbia until her retirement in 1981.
Though she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize she deserved, Wu collected several other awards for her work, including (but not limited to) American Association of University Women’s Woman of the Year Award (1962), Industrial Research Magazine’s Scientist of the Year Award (1974), and the National Medal of Science (1975), bestowed by the President of the United States. Furthermore, in 1990, Wu became the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after them.
Death & Legacy
On February 16, 1997, Wu died of a stroke while residing in New York. The following year, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Ultimately, the world will never forget Wu’s passion for science and her outspoken nature.