Chien-Shiung Wu: The First Lady of Physics

In a new regular feature on &ASIAN, we hope to lift the lid on the many incredible and forgotten ladies of Asian heritage that appear throughout history, bringing you a snapshot into their lives and achievements.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997). Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.
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Chien-Shiung Wu: The First Lady of Physics

Imagine that in the present day you are interested in learning about science and you want to apply to a university. This should be easy to do as there are many universities that accept people from around the world. Now imagine the year is 1936 and you are a Chinese woman. Now where do you think that you would go to obtain a PhD? 

For Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, the answer was to travel to the United States of America, all the way from her homeland of China. Despite the challenges that came with both her heritage and gender, Wu was still able to attend and obtain a degree at the University of California, Berkeley. Due to her sheer determination to continue studying science, she would eventually be referred to as the “First Lady of Physics.” 

Left to right: Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997), Y.K. Lee, and L.W. Mo. Creator: Beutler, Margarete 1876-1949. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

Wu was born in Liuhe, China, a small town near Shanghai on the 31st of May 1912. She was born to Funhua Fan, a teacher, and Zhong-Yi Wu, an engineer, and shehad two brothers. At this time, women were not expected to pursue their education. However, her parents, in particular her father, noticed her intelligence and curiosity and encouraged her to continue with her studies. 

Her parents set up a school so she could continue learning, but eventually she outgrew her parents’ teachings and continued her education at a boarding school in Suzhou. After graduating high school, Wu then graduated with a physics degree from National Central University, but it was while at National Central University, she was mentored by a fellow female scientist, Dr. Jing-Wei Gu. 

In 1942 it was difficult to find a position if you were a woman, person of color, or Jewish. That did not stop Wu. After obtaining her PhD, she married Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, another Chinese American physicist, and they moved to the East Coast of the USA where they hoped to find work in research institutes. Wu eventually worked at a women’s college before breaking barriers by becoming the first female faculty member in the physics department at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. 

A year later, she was offered a position at Columbia University in New York City, to work on a top secret wartime project, eventually known as The Manhattan Project: the very same project worked on by other famous scientists such as Dr Robert Oppenheimer and which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. 

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997).

During the interview for the project, she was not given any details about what the work involved and thus the two physicists who had been interviewing Wu, asked her if she wanted to guess what the project was. She replied, “I’m sorry, but if you wanted me not to know what you’re doing, you should have cleaned the blackboards.” She was hired.

While working on The Manhattan Project, she helped with developing better radiation detectors, figured out a problem with the self-sustaining reactor, and also worked on the enrichment of uranium. However, later in life, she would rarely talk about her time with The Manhattan Project. Many of the scientists felt the same way as Wu when they realized the destruction they caused. 

Wu told the President of Taiwan in 1962 that they should not create a nuclear program. 

After the war, Wu continued to work at Columbia University. In 1956, she was asked to create an experiment by her colleague at Columbia, Tsung-Dao Lee, and another colleague at Princeton University, Chen Ning Yang, to disprove The Parity Law.:

“The law of parity states that all objects and their mirror images behave the same way, but with the left hand and right hand reversed.” 

In order to do this, Wu created a series of experiments, later called the Wu Experiment, that would show that atoms had a preference for the direction they spun. The results stunned the scientific community and later led to Lee and Yang being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

Wu was not included for the award, even though her experiment led to the discovery. Many people, including Wu herself, believed she was overlooked due to being a woman. 

Even without the Nobel Prize, Wu continued to work and receive international awards including the Comstock and Wolf Prizes in Physics and in 1975, she was also the first woman to be elected as President of the American Physical Society. 

Throughout her career, Wu would continue to be an advocate for gender equality and is respected for her great influence in the field of physics. She continued to work until her retirement in 1980 and would eventually pass away in 1997 at the age of 84.

- Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, the First Lady of Physics (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, December 20, 2022.
- Angelucci, Ashley. “Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021,
- Tayag, Yasmin. “Chien-Shiung Wu’s Work Defied the Laws of Physics.” Popular Science, May 16, 2022.
- Yuan, Jada. “Perspective | Discovering Dr. Wu.” The Washington Post, January 21, 2022.
- Corless, Victoria. “Chien-Shiung Wu, the Authority in Beta Decay.” Advanced Science News, March 9, 2023.
- Smith, Monica M. “Diverse Voices: Chien-Shiung Wu, ‘the Chinese Marie Curie.’” Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, May 6, 2022

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