The First Lady of Physics: Chien-Shiung Wu


Born on May 31, 1912, in Liuhe, China, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu is a pioneer and a crucially important figure in the history of physics. She grew up told to pursue her interests throughout high school by her parents Fanhua Fan, her mother, and Zhong-Yi Wu, her father. Her father was not only an engineer but a believer in gender equality to the point he opened one of the first girls’ schools in China! Chien-Shiung attended her father’s school and developed a love for science and math at a young age. A few years later, she graduated from high school at the top of her class in 1929.

College Years

National Central University is the college Chien-Shiung attended college at and earned an undergraduate degree in physics in 1934. She taught at the National Chekiang University while building experimental research experience after graduating. She studied under the guidance of her female professor, Jing-Wei. Later, Chien-Shiung Wu gained confidence in her abilities after collaborating with another woman and reading about other women in the same field. Marie Curie, a female scientist, significantly shaped her academic pursuits and even her life after she learned about her at a young age.

Jing-Wei raised the morale of Chien-Shiung to complete her Ph.D. in the United States so she could work with some of the most famous scientists in the world and, as well, learn more about American Culture. So, following her professor’s words enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. At the university, she met other Chinese students and a physicist named Luka Chia-Lu Yuan, a man who helped her get used to the conditions of life in a new country. She earned her Ph.D. in 1940 after focusing on researching nuclear technology, which would be most valuable in her future career. Chien-Shiung and Luke studied in the same department, remaining friends until 1942 when their relationship changed and got married.


With the start of World War II happening, the job opportunities in California were limited. Anti-Asian attitudes increased due to the war to make things worse. Chien-Shiung and Luke moved east, where Luka joined a faculty at Princeton University. Chien-Shiung, on the other hand, taught at Smith College, a women’s college. Though Chien-Shiung enjoyed her new job, the university did not have a research facility. So, after a year, she was given an offer from Princeton, which she accepted. Princeton gave her access to world-class research space. Although Princeton was still an all-male school in the 1940s and the fact that Chien-Shiung was the first female instructor on their faculty, she often relied on her durable personality and her impressive research skills to overcome the challenge of being one of the few women on campus.

However, her work at Princeton ended earlier than expected as she received an invitation to join the Manhattan Project at Columbia University as a senior scientist. This project was a government-funded initiative to research and create powerful atomic weapons. Developing a bomb was complex and impossible to complete with one person. The Manhattan Project included many scientists from different fields who worked independently and collaboratively throughout the United States. Most had no direct connections to warfare technology. However, their work would be helpful to the Manhattan Project. Chien-Shiung’s job focused on identifying a way to separate uranium metal through a gaseous infusion, which is critical to transforming a bomb into an atomic bomb.

Chien-Shiung continued to work at Columbia University as a faculty member after World War II. She became the first woman to hold a tenured faculty position in the University’s physics department. And in 1947, when Chien-Shiung was around 35 years old, she had her and Luke’s only child named Vincent, who followed his parents’ path and worked as a physicist.

The American immigration laws and Chinese political upheaval made it difficult for Chien-Shiung to stay connected to her homeland. She could not travel to China and had to write to her family using letters. In 1954, Chien-Shiung decided to make her Chinese American status official by becoming a United States citizen.

As a Woman in Physics

Her effort in researching for the Manhattan Project has helped her establish herself as a leading expert in nuclear physics. A lot of her work was involved in proving or disproving theories that were presented by other scientists. One of her most famous examples was her research on the law of conservation of parity. Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, two physicists working at Princeton, claimed they made great discoveries around this law. However, most of the scientific community refused to believe they were correct. So, Chien-Shiung experimented and proved that their theories were valid. Therefore, the scientific community celebrated Tsung-Dao and Chen-Ning. Despite that, in 1957, the two scientists were given a Nobel Prize in Physics, and many people who knew about Chien-Shiung’s work thought that she would have received a Nobel Prize as well because her experiment proved that Tsung-Dao’s and Chen-Ning’s ideas were correct.

She believed she was a victim of industry-wide sexism and felt that she wasn’t the first female scientist to feel overlooked by the Nobel panel, nor was she the last. However, Chien-Shiung didn’t allow this to prevent her from continuing her research. From the 1960s to the 1970s, the field she worked in started to recognize and celebrate her contributions officially.

Chen-Shiung continued to research and teach in the Physics Department at Columbia University until 1981. When she retired, she focused on encouraging young women to pursue a career in technology and science, participating in educational programs for girls and young women, and speaking openly about her struggle to earn recognition for her work.


In 1997 in her home in New York, she died of a stroke and was buried in her homeland in China. She is described as the “First Lady of Physics” because of her remarkable contributions to the field despite the challenges she faced during her life.