Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Liu ho, China on May 31, 1912. Her father, formally an engineer, became a revolutionary during the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty. Both of Wu’s parents encouraged women’s education and even created their own elementary school. After elementary school, Wu then attended the Suzhou Girl’s School. Much to Wu’s dismay, there was a lack of physics, mathematics, and chemistry instruction, prompting Wu to teach herself courses not offered. While following her father’s lead in political activity, Wu was too smart to be expelled from the school and graduated valedictorian. She then attended the National Central University in Nanjing, China. She originally studied mathematics but soon reverted to physics, graduating in 1934. After researching X-ray crystallography and teaching for two years at her Alma Mater, Chien-Shiung Wu decided come to the United States to pursue a graduate degree.
She and her fellow scientist, Dong Ruofen, originally had their minds set on attending the University of Michigan; however, they found that the student union was closed to women and both women decided to enroll at the University of California at Berkeley. Coincidentally, Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan Project, was simultaneously on the physics faculty during Wu’s Ph.D. at Berkeley. While procuring her Ph.D., Wu met her future husband, Luke Liu Yuan. After Japan invaded China in 1937, Chien-Shiung Wu never saw her family again. Because of racial and sexist biases, she did not receive tenure at Berkeley and followed her husband to the east coast where she and her husband both began teaching at Princeton.
Soon after, she was recruited by the War Research department at Columbia University as part of the Manhattan Project. During her work in the developing of the atomic bomb, she created radiation detecting instruments and famously made a better process to enrich uranium ore to use in atomic bombs. After the Manhattan Project in 1945, Wu continued her tenure at Columbia as a research associate. In 1947, Wu and Luke’s son, Vincent Wei-chen was born. Wu’s research at Columbia focused on beta decay. In 1956, she began working with Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang in an attempt to prove the principle of parity flawed. In 1957, Lee and Yang received the Nobel Prize for their monumental work. Unfortunately for Wu, she did not receive credit due to a gender bias.
Wu went on to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton, became the first woman to win the Research Corporation Award, and one of few women to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In 1964, she was the first woman awarded the Cyrus B Comstock award by the National Academy of Sciences. She was appointed to an endowed position at Columbia in 1972 and was named scientist of the year in 1974, the first woman to become president of the American Physical Society and was awarded a National Medal of Science in 1976.
In 1981, Chien Shiung Wu officially retired but continued to teach and apply science to policy issues. Wu was a model for women in overcoming gender barriers. Chien Shiung Wu died in 1997 in Manhattan.
Woah. This lady was intense.