A Woman of Achievement: Physicist Maria Goeppert-Mayer

September 8, 2011

With September as Women of Achievement month, Cole-Parmer spotlights the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Theoretical Physics (1963): Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Prior to the age of 53, most of Mayer’s scientific work was performed as a volunteer. Her first paid position was a part-time appointment at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago. Her role as senior researcher led her to develop the nuclear shell model of atomic nuclei, the work for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

The German-born Mayer came from a family of academics. She attended the University of Göttingen, the center of physics at the time. One of Mayer’s professors was Max Born, whose other students included Oppenheimer, Fermi, and von Neumann. After completing her doctoral dissertation, Mayer produced ten papers and a textbook, but could not garner a paid position. At the time of her award-winning discovery, researcher J.H.D. Jensen of Germany also arrived at the same structural conclusions and the two collaborated on the book Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure. Jensen, along with theoretician Eugene Wigner, shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Goeppert-Mayer.

Eventually, Goeppert-Mayer was appointed professor at the University of California at San Diego. She died in San Diego in 1972. Goeppert-Mayer’s legacy as a female Nobel Laureate in Physics was preceded by Marie Curie (1903).


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