Before the War: Women Physicists in the US

Before the War: Women Physicists in the US

March Photos of the Month

Today, we know that the gender gap in physics is large.

Number of Bachelor's Degrees Earned in Physics, Classes 1982-2017

Number of Bachelor's Degrees Earned in Physics, Classes 1982-2017. From the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center.

This gender gap might lead to the misconception that, with a few famous exceptions like Marie Curie and Lise Meitner, women were rarely involved with physics until very recently. However, women have always been involved with physics, throughout the history of physics. Historian Joanna Behrman notes in her article “Physics … is for girls?” in Physics Today magazine,

At the dawn of the 20th century, more than half of secondary-school physics students were female, but by 1950 only 20–30% were.

Physics has never been a static discipline, but significant change happened in the field during World War II, sometimes known as “The Physicist’s War.” The changes are complex and driven by a wide variety of factors, but one impetus for the changing status of the field was the race to make nuclear weapons for the war and subsequent deployment of nuclear weapons, which threw the discipline of physics into the spotlight and increased its desirability as a career. This, combined with societal trends of the 1950s that emphasized women’s place in the home, may have contributed to the idea of physics being a field for men.[1] For this Photos of the Month, I explored the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives to take a look at images in our collection of women involved with physics before World War II in the United States - some subjects well-known, some less-known, others unknown.

Three women out of a group of seven physics undergraduates at the University of Michigan in 1930. Unfortunately, we don’t have the identity of anyone in this photo.

(For a historical photo that has a better identification story, check out the History Mystery post, complete with photo identification satisfaction!)

Perhaps the undergraduates in the first image would have met some of the attendees of this University of Michigan summer session in the year prior?

 At first glance, it might look like this image is all men. However, you can see a few women dotted among the crowd, including a young Melba Phillips peeking out of the right side, third row. She was one of the first doctoral students of Robert Oppenheimer; she developed the Oppenheimer-Phillips process with him in 1935, was the author and editor of textbooks and history of science works, taught at several universities and colleges and was later involved in higher administration, and served as the American Association of Physics Teachers’ first woman president. She wrote a speech for the American Physical Society which touches on the subject of her experience as a woman in physics in the 1930s (she was one of several in her class!) - read about it in Vol 53 Number 2 of our History Newsletter.

Although this image is undated, I am making an educated guess (as sometimes we must) that it was taken prior to World War II. We know for sure that Ming-Chen Wang was working in physics in the United States before the War, at least. Sometimes known as the “Chinese Marie Curie,” Ming-Chen Wang (1906-2010) was a beneficiary of the Barbour Scholarships for Oriental Women (original name of scholarship), and began her studies at the University of Michigan in 1938 in theoretical physics. She received her PhD in 1942 in the University of Michigan and published several papers with George Uhlenbeck and Samuel Goudsmit on statistical mechanics. She worked on noise in the MIT Radiation Laboratory from 1943 to 1945. She bounced back and forth between the US and China over the course of her long career, and was imprisoned in China from 1966-1973 during the Cultural Revolution. I had not heard of her before chancing upon her image in our archives, and hope to learn more about her.

Holding hands standing in front of a building at the Harvard College Observatory, circa 1917. Left to right: Woods, Evelyn F. Leland, Florence Cushman, Grace Brooks, Mary H. Vann, Henrietta Leavitt, Mollie O'Reilly, Edith F. Gill, Alta Carpenter, Annie J. Cannon, Dorothy Block, Arville D. Walker, Frank Hinkley and Edward S. King. 

If you don’t already know the incredible story and vital contributions to astronomy of the Harvard Observatory women computers, especially Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Williamina Fleming), I would highly recommend a dive into their stories, perhaps starting with Smithsonian Magazine’s article “The Women Who Mapped the Universe and Still Couldn’t Get Any Respect” by Natasha Geiling. NBLA staff also recommends the play Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson on this subject, which our staff had the pleasure of seeing together back in 2019.

I enjoy the solidarity symbol of hand-holding in this image, as well as the helpful image key.

The dramatic moment in the Harvard College Observatory Pinafore at the Observatory residence. The cast of graduate students and staff includes (left to right): Peter Millman, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Swope, Mildred Shapley (daughter of Harlow and Martha Shapley), Helen Sawyer-Hogg, Sylvia Mussells-Lindsay, Adelaide Ames and Leon Campbell. Circa 1929

Speaking of plays! Harvard Observatory astronomers had some fun. This image is from the play entitled The Observatory Pinafore, which is a spoof on Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedic opera HMS Pinafore. The Observatory Pinafore was written in 1879 by observatory assistant Winslow Upton. The manuscript is in the hand of Williamina Fleming, and it’s possible that she contributed to the content of the text as well. It was passed around and enjoyed, but not performed until fifty years later, at a 1929 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, with a new generation of astronomers, as you see in the image. This blog post from the website of yet another play - a 2017 play called The Women Who Mapped the Stars by Joyce Van Dyke - has more information about this image: “Cecilia Payne as Josephine, stopping Professor Rogers (Peter Millman) from killing himself over her departure.  Copyright held by Charles Reynes, great grandson of astronomer Edward Skinner King who likely attended the performance.”


Female students in the 2nd year physics class at Wellesley College. The original building that housed the laboratories, College Hall, burned down on March 17, 1914.

We don’t have further information on the people or date of this image, unfortunately, but from the dress of the photo subjects, I am making an educated guess that this was taken before World War II, and it is likely from the 1890s. One of the famous Harvard computers, Annie Jump Cannon, graduated from Wellesley College in 1884.

Maria Mitchell with her father, William Mitchell.

Maria Mitchell with her father, William Mitchell. Catalog ID: Mitchell Maria G1, Credit: Photograph by Slee Bros., Vassar College Archives

As Maria Mitchell was a librarian, she is a bit of a Niels Bohr Library & Archives favorite. Both of her parents wanted her to have an education, and in addition to her work as a librarian, she became an astronomer in her father's observatory. She discovered a comet in 1847 for which she received a gold medal from the King of Denmark. She was the first woman appointed to the Academy of Arts and Sciences (1848), first woman named to the Association of the Advancement of Science (1850), first woman to become an Astronomy Professor in the U.S. (1865), and first woman elected to the American Philosophical Society (1869). She worked at Vassar College for decades and inspired many other women to go into astronomy. We reviewed the wonderful illustrated children’s book about Maria Mitchell, What Miss Mitchell Saw by Hayley Barrett, in our Women's History Month Graphic Novel and Picture Book Recommendations post.

[1] For more on this topic, “Suburbanization of Physics” by David Kaiser is an in-depth read on some post-World War II changes to the field of physics.


About the Author

Corinne Mona

Corinne Mona

Corinne Mona is the Head Editor of the Ex Libris Universum blog. She is also a Librarian at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. In addition to a master's degree in library & information science, she also holds advanced degrees in music performance and French. Here at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, she wrangles books and journals by cataloging, shifting, buying, and promoting them. Corinne considers herself a librarian flutist or flutist librarian depending on the day, as she is also a professional musician and flute teacher. Outside of work, she also loves reading, baking, and studying animals, especially true seals.  One of her favorite books from the library is Women Spacefarers by Umberto Cavallero.

Caption: Astronaut Catherine Coleman is featured in the book Women Spacefarers. She played this traditional Irish flute and tin whistle in space on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011 at the International Space Station. Photo is public domain through NASA.

See all articles by Corinne Mona

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