Jennifer Mondfrans

Thematic Painter


Chien Shiung Wu

Nuclear Physicist


acrylic, oil and cold wax on canvas

765 × 1024

Dear You,

In my homeland of China, women did not have the same rights as men when I was young. But my father believed in me, perhaps that’s why my given name means “courageous hero.” I went to his school that he and my mother operated, but when I was 11, I had to leave for a bigger city to continue my education. When I graduated, I taught school for one year before I could continue on to college. Upon completion, I realized I needed to learn more physics than China could provide and left for the United States.

I had intended to go Michigan, but my steamership landed in California and when I met physicists at the University of California in Berkeley, I changed my mind.

I studied under Ernest Lawrence, who would win the Nobel Prize for his invention of the cyclotron particle accelerator. And I met my husband who was also a physicist. After graduation, we went to the East Coast to find work. After teaching at Smith, I became the first female instructor in physics at Princeton. This was more than 25 years before women could enroll as students.

In 1956, I was working at Columbia, when my colleagues asked if I could think of a way to test a basic law of physics. I did, and decided to carry out the experiment myself. I spent months just preparing and testing my specially-designed equipment.

On the afternoon of January 15, 1957, the Department of Physics at Columbia called a press conference to announce the dramatic overturning of what had been considered a law of physics, known as conservation of parity. My colleagues, Dr. Tsung-Dao Lee and Dr. Chen Ning Yang won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics but I was not included.

I did win the Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific award. And my book Beta Decay, published in 1965, remains the standard reference for nuclear physicists.

Learning, for me, was life-long. In my later research, I used advanced biophysics to study the molecular changes in hemoglobin associated with sickle-cell anemia.