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Women Pioneers in Nuclear Science

Women played a very important role in varying aspects of the Manhattan Project. However, because both the military and upper echelons of the scientific community were male dominated, the role of women was often overshadowed. Women participated in both a civilian and a military capacity. From a military standpoint, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC’s) provided much of the administrative and clerical manpower and generally “filled-in” wherever they were needed. Civilian women worked as nurses, physicists, engineers, machine operators, maids, runners, drivers, chemists, typists, filers, doctors, inspectors, researchers, teachers, veterinarians, cryptographers, draftswomen, pipe-fitters, glass blowers, secretaries, and gauge watchers. In most instances they were over-worked and under-paid compared to their male counterparts. Although most of the women were white, there were Hispanic, Native Americans and a few African-American women involved.

Marie Sklodowska Curie

Marie-curie postcard.jpgPoland: 1867 – 1934
  • 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
  • Discovered Element Radium
  • Coined Term “Radioactivity”

Because a university education was not available to women in the Russian-controlled Poland of her birth, Marie Curie went to the University of Paris to obtain her advanced degrees. It was there that she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, who was already an authority on crystals and magnetic materials.

Adopting the study of Henri Becquerel‘s discovery of radiation in uranium as her thesis topic, Marie began the systematic study of other elements to see if there were others that also emitted this strange energy. Within days she discovered that Thorium also emitted radiation, and further, that the amount of radiation depended upon the amount of element present in the compound. Thus, she deduced that radioactivity does not depend on how atoms are arranged into molecules, but rather that it originates within the atoms themselves. This discovery is perhaps her most important scientific contribution. For their joint research into radioactivity, Marie and Pierre Curie were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics.

As a team, the Curies would go on to even greater scientific discoveries. In 1898, they announced the discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium. Isolating pure samples of these elements was exhausting work for Marie. It took four years of back-breaking effort to extract 1 decigram of radium chloride from several tons of raw ore. In 1906, Pierre was killed in a traffic accident. Marie carried on their research and was appointed to fill Pierre’s position at the Sorbonne, thus becoming the first woman in France to achieve professorial rank. In 1911, Marie won her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for isolating pure radium.

Marie Curie died in 1934 of radiation induced leukemia. In 1995, her remains were transferred to the French National Mausoleum, the first woman accorded that honor on her own merit.

Harriet Brooks


Canada: 1876 – 1933

  • First Graduate Student of Ernest Rutherford
  • Performed the Pioneering Experiments that Led to the Discovery of Nuclear Transmutation

Born in Exeter, Ontario, Harriet Brooks obtained her degree from McGill University at a time when many people still believed that women should not be permitted at a university. She was an excellent student, obtained first-rank honors, and was elected class president.

After graduation, Brooks was invited to join the research team of Ernest Rutherford. a physicist who was extremely supportive of women in science. Rutherford put her to work in the field of electricity and magnetism. This work led to her earning a master’s degree in physics – the first given to a woman at McGill University.

In 1899, Brooks began her research in radioactivity. Rutherford had reported that thorium gave out some radioactive substance that could be carried away by air currents. He called it an “emanation” and so Brooks took to the task of determining its nature. She discovered that it was a gas with a smaller molecular weight than the original thorium. This experiment led Rutherford to realize that transmutation of one element to another had occurred – a key step in the history of nuclear science.

In 1901, Brooks was accepted at Bryn Mawr, where she immediately began work toward her Ph.D. She won a President’s European Fellowship and used it to spend a year at Cambridge. Upon her return she resumed her work with Rutherford at McGill. Her research supported Rutherford’s contention that elements went through multiple transformations during radioactive decay. Prior to this time, it was believed that decay was a singular event.

In 1906, Brooks spent a year in Paris at the Curie laboratory, where she studied the decay rate of actinium B, a radioactive isotope of lead. In 1907, she married Frank Pitcher and, like many women scientists of her day, abandoned research for married life.

Although rarely mentioned in the history books on women in science, Harriet Brooks was regarded by her contemporaries as, “next to Marie Curie, the most outstanding woman in the field of radioactivity.”

Rosalind Franklin

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England: 1920 – 1958

Rosalind Franklin made important discoveries about the molecular structure of coal and carbon in her research. These discoveries would later be used to develop strong carbon fibers and to slow reactions in nuclear power plants. She was also the first woman to that discovered the structure of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin was educated at Cambridge University over the opposition of her father, who thought she should stay at home and do volunteer work. She obtained her doctorate in 1945.

After she finished her education, Franklin moved to Paris to study the branch of physics known as Xray crystallography.

In this technique, a beam of x-rays is sent through a crystal. When the x-rays strike atoms in the crystal, they bounce off at an angle and make an image on photographic film. By studying these pictures, crystallographers can figure out how the atoms are arranged.

In 1953, a fellow researcher in Franklin’s lab, Maurice Wilkins, gave American chemist James Watson a copy of Franklin’s original DNA data without her knowledge. With this information, Watson, and his English colleague, Francis Crick, who had been struggling to decipher DNA, had the final piece they needed to support their theory of the structure.

They would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for their work. Franklin was never fully credited for her contribution to their work. However, she is generally regarded as the first to discover the structure of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 of cervical cancer.

Irène JoliotCurie

Irene-Joliot Curie and her husband, Frederic Joliot, at work

France: 1897 – 1956

Discovered Artificial Radioactivity 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Director of the Radium Institute

As the oldest daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, it is no surprise that Irene would exhibit an early interest in science. Unlike other young girls of this time, Irene’s interest was considered by her parents to be completely normal. It was expected that she should pursue an advanced degree in science. Accordingly, Irene attended the University of Paris, where she graduated with a doctorate in physics.

After graduation, Irene began work with her mother at the Radium Institute. There she met her future husband, Frederic Joliot and they married in 1926, adopting the combined name of Joliot-Curie. They would work together as a team until the German occupation of France during World War II.

In 1933, they made the discovery that radioactive elements can be artificially produced from stable elements. This was done by exposing aluminum foil to alpha particles. When the radioactive source was removed, the Joliot-Curies discovered that the aluminum had become radioactive.

This discovery had far reaching applications – especially in medicine. Other isotopes were soon discovered, including a radioactive form of iodine, which was used to treat thyroid diseases. Because their discovery proved that radioactive isotopes could be made relatively inexpensively, the difficult task of separating naturally occurring radioactive isotopes from their ores (which her mother, Marie, had labored long to do) was no longer necessary. This discovery greatly advanced the development of nuclear physics.

Like her mother, Irene Joliot-Curie died of leukemia caused by years of radiation exposure. She was 58 years old.

Lise Meitner

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Austria: 1878 – 1968

  • Discovered the Element Protactinium
  • First to Explain the Theory of Nuclear Fission
  • Germany’s First Woman Physics Professor
  • Artificial Element 109 Named in Her Honor

Raised in Vienna at a time when girls were only educated until age 14, Lise Meitner dreamed of studying mathematics and physics. Despite the opposition of her father, Meitner enrolled at Vienna University in 1901. After she received her doctorate, she began experimenting with radioactivity. She moved to Berlin to work with famed Max Planck, who had won a Nobel Prize for his quantum theory. It was there that she began her long association with Otto Hahn, a chemist, who needed the help of a physicist to look for new elements. Unfortunately women were prohibited from entering the building where Hahn’s laboratory was located. After a compromise was achieved, Meitner was allowed to work in a basement room without pay.

After World War I, Meitner and Hahn discovered Protactinium, a rare radioactive element with atomic number 91. The now highly regarded Meitner was asked to become director of the new physics department at the Chemistry Institute in Berlin, where she remained until she was forced to flee the Nazi persecution of the Jews in 1938.

Despite being exiled to Sweden, Meitner maintained contact with her old lab in Germany. Hahn sent daily letters asking for opinions or explanations of the experiments they were running. Scientists at the time were bombarding uranium with neutrons in the mistaken belief that they could create elements heavier than uranium. Strangely, the results they were getting seemed to point to lighter elements. It was Meitner who ultimately hit on the solution – that the uranium nucleus had actually split, forming two smaller elements.

Sadly for Meitner, before she could publish her results, her former partner Hahn had notified a German scientific journal about the discovery and his article was published first. As a result, Hahn would go on to win the 1944 Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. He never acknowledged Meitner’s contribution to the work.

The scientific community, however, never forgot her importance to physics. In 1992, element 109, the heaviest known element in the universe was named Meitnerium in her honor. Lise Meitner is considered by many as the “most significant woman scientist of the 20th century”.

Edith Hinkley Quimby

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United States: 1891 – 1982

  • First to Establish Effective Dosage Levels in Radiotherapy
  • Instrumental in the Creation of the Science of Radiation Physics

Born in Illinois, Edith Hinkley Quimby attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wa. on a full scholarship. There she majored in mathematics and physics, an unheard of combination for women at that time. She taught for two years as a science teacher before entering the University of California at Berkeley, where she obtained her master’s degree in physics.

After marrying and moving to New York City in 1919, Edith secured a job at N.Y.C. Memorial Hospital as an assistant physicist. At that time, she was the only woman in America engaged in medical physics research.

In the early 1900’s, the field of radiological physics did not exist, although the use of x-rays and radium for the treatment of diseases was being practiced at a number of hospitals. Quimby’s job was to establish the most effective and safest method of using these new radioactive isotopes to fight diseases like cancer.

She measured the amount of radiation emitted by x-rays and radium and was the first to establish the levels of radiation that the human body could tolerate. Her work provided the first practical guidelines to physicians using radiation therapy.

ChienShiung Wu

Wu 250.jpg

United States: 1912 – 1997

  • First Woman President of the American Physics Society
  • First Woman to Receive the Comstock Prize
  • Proved that the Law of Parity is Not Conserved in Beta Decay

Born in China, Chien-Shiung Wu attended the prestigious National Central University in Nanping, where she obtained her undergraduate degree. In 1936, she left China and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley where she studied physics under Lawrence and Oppenheimer. In 1940, she received her Ph.D and became known as an authority on nuclear fission.

During World War II she participated in the Manhattan Project and worked on developing the process of separating U235 and U238 by gaseous diffusion. Her work also led to the development of more sensitive Geiger counters.

In 1957, she became a full professor at Columbia University. It was here that she was approached by noted physicists TsungDao Lee and Chen Ning Yang. Because she was known as an expert on beta decay, they asked her to devise an experiment to prove their theory that the law of conservation of parity did not hold true during beta decay.

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. Beta decay occurs when the nucleus of one element changes into another element.

Wu’s experiments, which utilized radioactive cobalt at near absolute zero temperatures, proved that identical nuclear particles do not always act alike. Lee and Yang went on to receive the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics for their theory. Although Wu was never recognized for her contribution to the project, she went on to win many other coveted scientific awards, including the National Medal of Science, the Comstock Prize, and the first honorary doctorate awarded to a woman at Princeton University.


WAC History – Women’s Army Corps Veterans’ Association

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism

AP Central – Women Scientists of the Manhattan Project

Super Women in Science

ChienShiung Wu – the Atomic Heritage Foundation