Chien-Shiung Wu

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu

Particle and Experimental Physicist (1912-1997)

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was a leading experimental physicist whose career included working on the Manhattan Project.  She was likely the only Chinese person to have done so.  Wu is known as the “Chinese Marie Curie” and “the First Lady of Physics.” 

Wu’s experiments, which utilized radioactive cobalt at near absolute zero temperatures, demonstrated the “non-conservation of parity.”  In other words, she proved that identical nuclear particles do not always act alike, a possible reason why there was more matter than anti-matter after the Big Bang. Though physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang received the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for their accompanying theoretical work, Wu was not acknowledged.

At the Manhattan Project, Wu worked at the Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Lab at Columbia University starting in 1944. Wu helped develop the process for separating uranium metal into U-235 and U-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion.  She also developed improved Geiger counters for measuring nuclear radiation levels. 

Born in a small town near Shanghai, Wu received an education starting from an early age, an unusual development for girls at the time.  Her father, however, believed in education for girls and had started a school, which Wu attended.  Wu proceeded to study physics at a university in Shanghai.  In 1936, she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, as a student of Ernest Lawrence.  She completed her Ph.D. in 1940.

Wu made significant contributions throughout her life.  Her research on the study of molecular changes in hemoglobin in the 1950s had applications to sickle-cell anemia.  Her book Beta Decay, published in 1965, is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists. 

Wu won several prestigious awards and honors such as the National Medal of Science, the Comstock Prize, and the Wolf Prize in Physics. She was the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate by Princeton University and was the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society. Dr. Wu also gave speeches advocating for more women in science.Wu is the second Asian American woman to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp.  The Chien-Shiung Wu postage stamp was released on Feb. 11, 2021, in observance of International Day of Women and Girls in Science