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Chien-Shiung Wu

Chien-Shiung Wu
Ink and watercolor on 9″ x 12″ watercolor paper
The latest addition to the She Changed the World collection!

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was so smart that I find it hard to write about her. She’s known as both “the First Lady of Physics” and as the “Queen of Nuclear Research” due to her significant contributions in the field of nuclear physics. She grew up in the town of Liuhe in Taicang, Jiangsu province, China. She went to elementary school at Ming De School, a girls-only institution founded by her father. At the age of 11 she began attending the Suzhou Women’s Normal School, where she was ranked ninth out of 10,000 applicants for the highly competitive teacher training program. In 1929 she graduated at the top of her class and was then admitted to the National Central University in Nanjing, first in mathematics but then transferring to physics. During this time she became involved in politics, organizing sit-ins and other demonstrations.

Two years after graduation she came to America, where she entered the University of California, Berkley’s graduate program. It was here that she met her future husband Luke Chia-Liu Yuan. She left UC Berkley due to the prejudices against Asians for Caltech where she made rapid progress in both her education and her research. She began her studies into beta decay during this time, which would become her main life’s work.

During World War II Wu joined the Manhattan Project’s Substitue Alloy Materials Laboratories at Columbia University. There her main work was to devolop radiation detector instrumentation. Her earlier studies into beta decay proved instrumental in solving a problem the project was facing, making the entire endeavor successful. She stayed at Columbia for the rest of her career.

Wu never saw her parents again after leaving China due to the outbreak first of the Pacific War, and then the following civil war. Her passport was issued by the prior government, leading to her becoming a United States Citizen. She wasn’t able to return to China until 1973, but then visited frequently thereafter. Her political feelings strengthened over the years, first protesting imprisonments in Taiwan, then against gender discrimination in the US. At a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology she asked, “I wonder, whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.” In 1975 her pay was adjusted to equal that of her male counterparts.

She passed away on February 16, 1997. In her life she was the recipient of numerous honors, including being the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University, multiple fellowships, the Scientist of the Year Award in 1974, the National Medal of Science, the first recipient of the Wolf Prize in Physics, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.

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