Women in Radiation History
Marie Sklodowska Curie, the discoverer of radium and winner of two Nobel Prizes, is without question the most famous woman in radiation science. She faced obstacles and prejudice, and achieved breakthroughs that changed the world. Her dramatic life has been portrayed in movies and television shows.
Many other women also overcame professional challenges to advance our understanding of radiation, but their stories remain relatively unknown. Scroll down for the stories of three such women in history: Lise Meitner, Chien-Shiung Wu, and Rosalind Franklin. To hear the story of a woman working in radiation science in our time, watch our video presentation from EPA’s Lee Veal.
On this page:
Spotlight on Lee Veal
Ms. Lee Veal, Director of the Radiation Protection Division, talks about her experience as a woman in science and provides advice to anyone pursuing a science career.
Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968)
Lise Meitner helped discover the element protactinium and played a crucial role in the discovery of nuclear fission, which is needed for nuclear power and nuclear weapons. She became the first woman to be named a full professor of physics in Germany. Because of her Jewish ancestry, Dr. Meitner fled Nazi Germany and her name was left off publications. She was the one who coined the term “fission” in her own scientific paper, yet it was Otto Hahn who won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery. So many people felt she deserved a Nobel Prize that she was nominated 48 times. She never won.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912 - 1997)
Chien-Shiung Wu, the “First Lady of Physics,” was one of the best experimental physicists of her time. She designed an experiment for her physicist colleagues that proved their theory about the behavior of subatomic particles. In 1957 her colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their theory, but the Nobel Committee did not recognize Dr. Wu’s crucial contribution. She was the recipient of the first Wolf Prize in Physicsin 1973. The Wolf Prize recognizes outstanding scientists and artists from around the world.
Rosalind Franklin (1920 - 1958)
English scientist Rosalind Franklin used radiation science to achieve breakthroughs in biology. Her application of x-ray crystallography technology produced an image of the DNA double-helix structure. Her image confirmed James Watson and Francis Crick’s model of the DNA molecule, for which they received the Nobel Prize. She went on to apply x-ray crystallography in the study of viruses. Dr. Franklin's research on the dreaded polio virus was interrupted by her untimely death from cancer. Her students successfully completed her work on the structure of the polio virus a year after her death.