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Although her ancestral family home is Liuhe Township (瀏河鎮), Taicang County (太倉縣) (now a city (太仓市)), Jiangsu, Chien-Shiung Wu was born in Shanghai, to Wu Zhongyi (吳仲裔) and Fan Fuhua (樊復華). Wu Zhongyi was a proponent of gender equality who opened Mingde Women's Vocational Continuing School (明德女子職業補習學校), where Chien-Shiung Wu spent her elementary education until she left her hometown at 11 to the Suzhou Women's Normal School No. 2.
At the school, Wu attended a lecture by Hu Shih, whose reformist ideology she shared. Perhaps inspired by the meeting, she later went to the Public School of China (中國公學) founded by Hu in 1929. She then attended the National Central University (中央大學), Nanjing (1930 -1934). For two years after her graduation, she worked with another female researcher, Jing Weijing (靜薇進), in the university.
In 1936, she went to the USA with a female friend, Dong Ruofen (董若芬), a chemist from Taicang. Wu studied at the University of California, Berkeley, received her Ph.D in 1940. She married Luke Chia-Liu Yuan (袁家騮), also a physicist, two years later. They had a son, Vincent (袁緯承), who became a physicist as well. The family moved to the East Coast, where Wu taught at Smith College, Princeton University, and Columbia University (1957).
She assisted Tsung-Dao Lee personally in his parity laws development (with Chen Ning Yang) by providing him with a possible test method for beta decay in 1956 that worked successfully. Some consider this very instrumental in the creation of the laws, but she was not nominated for the Nobel Prize. Her book Beta Decay (1965) is still a standard reference for nuclear physicists.
She later conducted researches in molecular changes in the deformation of hemoglobins that cause sickle-cell anemia.
Wu made precedents for womankind on several ocassions:
- The first female instructor in the Physics Department of Princeton University
- The first woman with a Princeton honorary doctorate
- The first female President of The American Physical Society (1975, through an election)
Chinese Academy of Sciences named Asteroid 2752 after her in 1990: the Wu Jianxiong Xing. In 1995, four Chinese/Taiwanese Nobelists -- Tsung-Dao Lee, Chen Ning Yang, Samuel C. C. Ting, and Yuan T. Lee -- founded the Wu Chien-Shiung Education Foundation in Taiwan for the purposes of providing scholarships to young aspiring scientists.
She died two years later at the age of 84 of stroke in Manhattan, USA. Her cremated ash was buried in Mingde Senior High School (successor of Mingde Women's School). Her husband (died February 2003) chose to be buried beside her. The tombstone inscribed with the calligraphy by Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang (for Wu), and Samuel Ting and Yuan T. Lee (for Yuan).
Chien-Shiung Wu's generation name, Chien ("Capable"), is like her brothers', and not a separate name for females (See Chinese name). In addition, her parent-given name, Shiung, means "Hero" or "Conqueror". So, with her given name, many Chinese who first hear her mistake her as a male.