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Summary Article: Goeppert-Mayer, Maria
from American Women of Science since 1900



Education: Ph.D., physics, University of Göttingen, 1930

Professional Experience: research assistant, physics, Johns Hopkins University, 1931–1939; lecturer, Columbia University, 1939–1946; senior physicist, Argonne National Laboratory, 1946–1960; professor, School of Science and Engineering, University of California, San Diego, 1960–1972

Concurrent Positions: lecturer, Sarah Lawrence College, 1941–1942, 1945; volunteer professor, Fermi Institute of Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago, 1946–1959

Maria Goeppert-Mayer was a nuclear physicist involved in the development of the atomic fission bomb and a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for her work on the structure of atomic nuclei. She received her doctorate in 1930 from the University of Göttingen, which attracted many theoretical physicists of the era, but had few women faculty. In Göttingen, she met American chemistry student Joseph Mayer, and the two married in 1930. She came to the United States when her husband accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins, but due to anti-nepotism rules at that time, she was not able to secure a faculty position and worked as a research assistant and even translator for another professor until the couple moved to Columbia University in New York, where she was a lecturer in chemistry. It was in New York that she med Enrico Fermi, another Nobel Prize–winning physicist who was working on nuclear fission and radioactivity, research projects of increasing interest to the U.S. government. She joined Fermi's research team in an unpaid position and in 1942 began to work on top-secret bomb research as part of the Manhattan Project. As the United States had entered World War II, there was a shortage of male scientists, and many women were hired for the project. She was ambivalent about even her small contribution to work on the bomb, but even after the war she made visits to continue work on its development at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer was co-recipient of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on atomic nuclei.

(Nobel Foundation)

After the war, she was offered an associate professorship in physics at Fermi's new Institute of Nuclear Studies at the University Chicago, and was also a senior physicist at Argonne National Laboratory studying the nuclei of certain elements. It was through this research that she developed her shell model for electron movement around the nucleus, the subject of her 1949 joint publication with J. Hans D. Jensen, which led to their sharing of the Nobel Prize in 1963. Despite this work, and building a prominent reputation as a nuclear physicist beginning in the 1940s, it was not until 1959 that she began to earn a full professor's salary at Chicago. In 1960, both she and her husband were recruited for faculty positions at the University of California, San Diego.

Goeppert-Mayer was elected to the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences (1950) and National Academy of Sciences (1956). She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society, which presents the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award to a woman physicist each year. She co-authored two books: Statistical Mechanics (1940, with Joseph Mayer) and Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure (1955, with J. Hans D. Jensen).

Further Resources
  • Byers, Nina and Gary A. Williams. 2006. Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics. Cambridge University Press New York.
  • Opfell, Olga S. 1986. The Lady Laureates: Women Who Have Won the Nobel Prize. Scarecrow Press Metuchen, NJ.
  • Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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