Chien-Shiung Wu: A Pioneering Female Physicist

Professor at Columbia and First Woman to Win the Research Corporation Award

Chien-Shiung Wu in a Laboratory
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Chien-Shiung Wu, pioneering female physicist, experimentally confirmed the beta decay theoretical prediction of two male colleagues. Her work helped the two men win the Nobel Prize, but she was not recognized by the Nobel Prize committee.

Chien-Shiung Wu Biography

Chien-Shiung Wu was born in 1912 (some sources say 1913) and was raised in the town of Liu Ho, near Shanghai. Her father, who had been an engineer before he participated in the 1911 revolution which successfully ended Manchu rule in China, ran a Girls' School in Liu Ho where Chien-Shiung Wu attended until she was nine years old. Her mother was also a teacher, and both parents encouraged education for girls.

Teacher Training and University

Chien-Shiung Wu moved to Soochow (Suzhou) Girls' School which operated on a Western-oriented curriculum for teacher training. Some lectures were by visiting American professors. She learned English there. She also studied science and mathematics on her own; it was not part of the curriculum she was in. She was also active in politics. She graduated in 1930 as valedictorian.

From 1930 to 1934, Chien-Shiung Wu studied at the National Central University in Nanking (Nanjing). She graduated in 1934 with a B.S. in physics. For the next two years, she did research and university-level teaching in X-ray crystallography. She was encouraged by her academic advisor to pursue her studies in the United States, as there was no Chinese program in post-doctorate physics.

Studying at Berkeley

So in 1936, with the support of her parents and funds from an uncle, Chien-Shiung Wu left China to study in the United States. She first planned to attend the University of Michigan but then discovered that their student union was closed to women. She enrolled instead at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied with Ernest Lawrence, who was responsible for the first cyclotron and who later won a Nobel Prize. She assisted Emilio Segre, who was later to win a Nobel. Robert Oppenheimer, later leader of the Manhattan Project, was also on the physics faculty at Berkeley while Chien-Shiung Wu was there.

In 1937, Chien-Shiung Wu was recommended for a fellowship but she did not receive it, presumably because of racial bias. She served as Ernest Lawrence's research assistant instead. That same year, Japan invaded China; Chien-Shiung Wu never saw her family again.

Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Chien-Shiung Wu received her Ph. D. in physics, studying nuclear fission. She continued as a research assistant at Berkeley until 1942, and her work in nuclear fission was becoming known. But she was not given an appointment to the faculty, probably because she was an Asian and a woman. At that time, there was no woman teaching physics at the university level at any major American university.

Marriage and Early Career

In 1942, Chien-Shiung Wu married Chia Liu Yuan (also known as Luke). They had met in graduate school at Berkeley and eventually has a son, nuclear scientist Vincent Wei-Chen. Yuan obtained work with radar devices with RCA in Princeton, New Jersey, and Wu began a year of teaching at Smith College. Wartime shortages of male personnel meant she got offers from Columbia University, MIT, and Princeton. She sought a research appointment but accepted a non-research appointment at Princeton, their first female instructor of male students. There, she taught nuclear physics to naval officers.​

Columbia University recruited Wu for their War Research department, and she began there in March of 1944. Her work was part of the then-still-secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb. She developed radiation detecting instruments for the project, and helped solve a problem that stymied Enrico Fermi, and made possible a better process to enrich uranium ore. She continued as a research associate at Columbia in 1945.

After World War II

After the end of World War II, Wu received word that her family had survived. Wu and Yuan decided not to return because of the ensuing civil war in China, and then later did not return because of the communist victory led by Mao Zedong. National Central University in China had offered both of them positions. Wu and Yuan's son, Vincent Wei-chen, was born in 1947; he later became a nuclear scientist.

Wu continued as a research associate at Columbia, where she was appointed an associate professor in 1952. Her research focused on beta decay, solving problems that had eluded other researchers. In 1954, Wu and Yuan became American citizens.

In 1956, Wu began to work at Columbia with two researchers, Tsung-Dao Lee of Columbia and Chen Ning Yang of Princeton, who theorized that there was a flaw in the accepted principle of parity. The 30-year-old parity principle predicted that pairs of right and left-handed molecules would behave in tandem. Lee and Yang theorized that this would not be true for weak force subatomic interactions.

Chien-Shiung Wu worked with a team at the National Bureau of Standards to confirm the theory of Lee and Yang experimentally. By January 1957, Wu was able to reveal that K-meson particles violated the principle of parity.

This was monumental news in the field of physics. Lee and Yang won the Nobel Prize that year for their work; Wu was not honored because her work was based on the ideas of others. Lee and Yang, in winning their award, acknowledged Wu's important role.

Recognition and Research

In 1958, Chien-Shiung Wu was made a full professor at Columbia University. Princeton awarded her an honorary doctorate. She became the first woman to win the Research Corporation Award, and the seventh woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She continued her research in beta decay.

In 1963, Chien-Shiung Wu experimentally confirmed a theory by Richard Feynman and Murry Gell-Mann, part of the unified theory.

In 1964, Chien-Shiung Wu was awarded the Cyrus B. Comstock Award by the National Academy of Sciences, the first woman to win that award. In 1965, she published Beta Decay, which became a standard text in nuclear physics.

In 1972, Chien-Shiung Wu became a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1972, was appointed to an endowed professorship by Columbia University. In 1974, she was named Scientist of the Year by Industrial Research Magazine. In 1976, she became the first woman to be president of the American Physical Society, and that same year was awarded a National Medal of Science. In 1978, she won the Wolf Prize in Physics.

In 1981, Chien-Shiung Wu retired. She continued to lecture and teach, and to apply science to public policy issues. She acknowledged the serious gender discrimination in the "hard sciences" and was a critic of gender barriers.

Chien-Shiung Wu died in New York City in February of 1997. She had received honorary degrees from universities including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. She also had an asteroid named for her, the first time such an honor went to a living scientist.


“... 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. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments yet she remains eternally feminine.”

Some other famous women scientists include Marie CurieMaria Goeppert-Mayer, Mary Somerville, and Rosalind Franklin.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Chien-Shiung Wu: A Pioneering Female Physicist." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 27). Chien-Shiung Wu: A Pioneering Female Physicist. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Chien-Shiung Wu: A Pioneering Female Physicist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).