Physicist Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

“I have always felt that in physics, and probably in other endeavors, too, you must have total commitment. It is not just a job. It is a way of life.” – Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Photograph of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu seated at a desk with experimental equipment, adjusting a control knob. She appears focused on her work, surrounded by papers and electronic panels with dials and cables. Chien-Shiung is wearing a traditional Chinese dress, reflecting her heritage.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu Snapshot Biography

Some said that Chien-Shiung Wu was the foremost female physicist and one of the most important physicists, male or female, of her time.

Born in 1912, Chien-Shiung grew up in the small village of Liuhe near Shanghai. In those days, women in China received little, if any, education. But Chien-Shiung wanted to learn. And she was lucky. Her father opened and operated a school, one of the first in the country to allow girls to attend. Their home was also rich in learning and full of books and newspapers.

With a seemingly insatiable desire to learn, Chien-Shiung attended Nanjing Central University, graduating with the highest honors. Then, with luck again coupleing hard work again, her uncle offered to pay for more education. She went to the U.S., as China didn’t offer Ph.D. programs in physics at the time.

Intending to study at the University of Michigan, Chien-Shiung’s first stop in the U.S. was in San Francisco, where the ship she traveled to the U.S. on landed. While in the area, she visited a friend at Berkeley who introduced her to a Chinese graduate student in physics. After a tour of the facilities and an introduction to Ernest Lawrence, a Nobel Laureate in physics at the university, who was so impressed by Chien-Shiung that he offered any additional financial support she needed so that she could join the physics program, Chien-Shiung decided to change her plans. U.C. Berkeley became her new home. And the graduate student who gave Chien-Shiung that tour would become her husband.

“Chien-Shiung was very ambitious. She frequently quoted Madame Curie as her role model. She wanted to excel. I could feel her determination, and was confident that she could accomplish whatever she wanted.” – U.C. Berkeley classmate

Another classmate said, “If the experiment was done by Wu, it must be correct.”

After excelling in her studies, Chien-Shiung received a PhD in physics in 1940. Finding work, however, proved to be a challenge. Berkeley, like all the other top physics programs, didn’t hire women. She was, however, able to stay on as a post-doctoral fellow.

As she began working in her new role, the local newspaper Oakland Tribute wrote a story about her. The story included the following,

“A petite Chinese girl worked side by side with some top US scientists in the laboratory studying nuclear collisions. This girl is the new member of the Berkeley physics research team. Ms. Wu, or more appropriately Dr. Wu, looks as though she might be an actress or an artist or a daughter of wealth in search of Occidental culture. She could be quiet and shy in front of strangers, but very confident and alert in front of physicists and graduate students. China is always on her mind. She was so passionate and excited whenever “China” and “democracy” were referred to, as democracy meant so much in the 1940s. She is preparing to return and contribute to the rebuilding of China.”

Not long after, in 1942, Chien-Shiung was offered a position as an assistant professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. Shortly after, with Ernest Lawrence’s recommendation, she became an Associate Professor of Physics at Princeton University, the first female faculty member in the department’s history. And in 1945, she moved to Columbia University, where she would work for the rest of her career and become the first female tenured physics professor in university history.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu stands in a laboratory among complex experimental physics apparatus. She is smiling, looking directly at the camera, and dressed in a white lab coat over traditional clothing. The background is filled with an array of scientific equipment including stands, tubes, and wires indicative of mid-20th century experimental physics research.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, 1963

Throughout her career, Chien-Shiung would often work twelve hour days, conducting important and significant research on a number of topics that impacted physics and even biology and medicine. She would disprove what people thought to be fact, about which she would we say, “It is the courage to doubt what has long been established, the incessant search for its verification and proof, that pushed the wheel of science forward.” And she would have findings that would bring new knowledge to science. Among the many awards and honors she would receive for her work, Chien-Shiung became the President of the American Physical Society.

Chien-Shiung passed away in 1997.

Notes:

“Physicist Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu” Sources: