Phenomenal Physicist: A Portrait of Chien-Shiung Wu

Learn about the life and career of one of the most accomplished nuclear physicists of the twentieth century.

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Chien-Shiung Wu (1978, printed 2014) by Lynn GilbertSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Chien-Shiung Wu, known as “the First Lady of Physics” (an epithet she reportedly disliked), broke various barriers in the field of nuclear physics during her remarkable career.

This portrait of Wu, from 1978, was taken by photographer Lynn Gilbert for the book Particular Passions: Talks with Women Who Have Shaped Our Times (1981). Gilbert, along with coauthor Gaylen Moore, profiled forty-six women who had made significant contributions to advance their respective fields.

Gilbert’s portrait shows Wu carefully examining equipment in a laboratory and holding wiring in both hands, as if in the midst of conducting an experiment. Her active pose and alert facial expression convey the physicist’s meticulous focus on her task. The photograph depicts the scientist’s labor as “hands on,” a characterization befitting Wu’s approach as an experimental nuclear physicist.

Wu was born in 1912 in Liuhe, a small town located near Shanghai in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. Wu attended a local girls’ school, founded by her parents who believed girls should receive an education. She was an exceptional student, and by age eleven, she left home to attend a boarding school in Suzhou. After graduating from the National Central University in Nanjing, Wu began postgraduate work in physics at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.

Wu immigrated to the United States in 1936 and studied nuclear fission at the University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her PhD in physics in 1940. 

LIFE Photo Collection

After graduation, Wu and her husband, the physicist Luke Chia-Liu Yuan, moved to the East Coast for work. Increasing anti-Asian racism, especially strong on the West Coast after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was likely an important factor in their relocation.

Chien-Shiung WuSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1944, Wu took a position with the Division of War Research at Columbia University to conduct highly classified research on the enrichment of uranium-235 and radiation detectors for the Manhattan Project. 

This research and development program, led by the U.S. government during World War II, produced the first atomic bomb.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1978) by Lynn GilbertSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Wu continued to work in the physics department at Columbia University after the war and remained there until her retirement in 1981. Her research on beta decay, the process whereby an unstable atom can become more stable by changing the form of either a neutron or a proton inside its nucleus, marked one of Wu’s most significant contributions to the field of physics.

Tsung Dao Lee (1956) by Francis BelloSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1956, Wu collaborated with the theoretical physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang to help disprove the law of  “conservation of parity,” which had been a foundational principle of quantum mechanics for decades. Wu proposed an experiment using cobalt-60 to test—and ultimately demonstrate—Lee and Yang’s hypothesis that parity is not conserved in weak nuclear reactions.

Chen Ning Yang (1956) by Francis BelloSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Her male colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957 for this discovery, while Wu’s essential contribution did not receive the recognition many felt it deserved. It has been posited that Wu was not included in the prize because of gender bias.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1963)Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Although she never received a Nobel Prize, Wu was the recipient of numerous other prestigious awards and honors throughout her career, including the National Academy of Sciences’ Comstock Prize in Physics (1963), the National Science Foundation’s Medal of Science (1975), and the Wolf Prize in Physics (1978). 

Wu was also the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Princeton University (1958) and the first woman to become president of the American Physical Society (1975). She was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1998).

Chien-Shiung Wu (1978) by Lynn GilbertSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 2021, the United States Postal Service issued a Forever stamp honoring Wu. To view the stamp, click here. Designed by art director Ethel Kessler, it features a bust-length portrait of the scientist by the artist Kam Mak. 

Chien-shiung Wu, Y.K. Lee, and L.W. Mo (1963) by Margarete BeutlerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Vincent Yuan, a physicist at Los Alamos National Observatory and Wu’s son, said of the stamp, “I believe it goes beyond recognizing her scientific achievements; it also honors the determination and moral qualities that she embodied.”

Chien-shiung Wu and Dr. Brode (1958)Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The U.S. Postal Service released the stamp on February 11, 2021, to coincide with the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Wu advocated for women in science throughout her career. 

Chien-Shiung Wu (1978, printed 2014) by Lynn GilbertSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1964, in response to claims that women could not be as successful or as “objective” as men in the fields of science and engineering, Wu quipped, “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei or the mathematical symbols or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”

Credits: Story

Image Credits:
 
Chien-Shiung Wu by Lynn Gilbert, inkjet print, (1978, printed 2014).  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of friends of Linda Thrift, in recognition of her many years of service to the National Portrait Gallery. © Lynn Gilbert
 
Chien-Shiung Wu at her desk by Lynn Gilbert, 1978. © Lynn Gilbert
 
Tsung Dao Lee by Francis Bello, gelatin silver print, 1956. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Steve Bello. © Francis Bello Estate
 
Chen Ning Yang by Francis Bello, gelatin silver print, 1956. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Steve Bello. © Francis Bello Estate
 
Chien-Shiung Wu, . Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 90-105, Science Service Records, Image No. SIA2010-1507
 
Chien-Shiung Wu and Dr. Brode, 1958. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 90-105, Science Service Records, Image No. SIA2010-1512
 
Chien-Shiung Wu by Margarete Beutler, 1963. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 90-105, Science Service Records, Image No. SIA2010-1508

Chien-Shiung Wu. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 90-105, Science Service Records, Image No. SIA2010-1509 

 
 

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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