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Married Physicist Couples May 5, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Joseph and Maria Goeppert Mayer; AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

I’ve been away from the blog for some time now, which mainly has to do with the fact that I just got married.  Thus activities surrounding this event went to the top of my agenda, bumping ordinary work down into the space usually occupied by supplying content to EWP.  This post is inspired by my recent bout of marriage on the brain.

A bit of background: I nabbed some funding for putting together ACAP on my first try, but barely.  One thing that almost derailed the proposal was some anxiety that this would be yet another dead-white-male hall of fame.  That outcome is sort of inevitable: to this day, the physics profession suffers from a pronounced gender skew, albeit not so bad as in prior decades.  If one is to study physics history, one is going to end up studying a lot of white males, unless one specifically sets out to do a sociological or anthropological analysis of gender and minority relations in the profession.

I argued at the time that ACAP’s scale and reach to the present would almost certainly allow it to include women and minorities with whom professional historians rarely bother, but who have been well-known to physicists themselves.  This turned out to be correct.  On account of the historical bias of the physics profession against female and minority participation, only a small percentage of people in ACAP are women and minorities, but they are nevertheless there, and this allows the beginnings of a conversation about their history in the American physics profession—with certain important caveats, most notably that ACAP can analyze only the careers of those who have made it to the upper echelons of professional recognition.  ACAP must not be taken as a reliable sample from which to draw general conclusions about “women and minorities in physics”, since professional advancement has been one of the greatest challenges facing these groups in the profession.

One notable trend that we can look at is the prevalence of physicist married couples in the history of physics. The classic icon of women in the profession is Marie Curie (1867-1934), who, with her husband Pierre, won half the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 (Becquerel got the other half).  The only other woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics was Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972), who won in 1962 for her development of the “shell” model of the nucleus (she won with Eugene Wigner and German physicist Hans Jensen).  Mayer, though highly respected, had notorious difficulty securing her own position.  A German by birth, she was a student of Göttingen quantum physics luminary Max Born, and she moved to America in 1930 with her American husband Joseph Mayer (1904-1983).  Barred from professorships by anti-nepotism rules, Maria worked in low-level and unofficial positions until both she and Joseph became professors at the brand-new San Diego campus of the University of California in 1960.

On this blog, I have already discussed the career of Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997), who immigrated to the United States from China in 1936 to study physics at Michigan.  Learning of gender discrimination at that campus, she decided to study at Berkeley instead, where she met her husband, physicist Luke Yuan (1912-2003), another Chinese immigrant.  Wu found a place at Columbia in New York City, while Yuan spent his career at Brookhaven National Laboratory on nearby Long Island.  Although her career was slow in its early growth, by the 1970s she had become a distinguished figure in the American physics profession, and was the first woman to be named president of the American Physical Society.

Maurice Goldhaber (b. 1911) and Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber (1911-1998) met after both escaped Nazi Germany for England.  After Maurice secured a job at the University of Illinois in 1938, they both moved to Urbana where Gertrude had a similar experience with anti-nepotism rules as Maria Goeppert Mayer.  While Gertrude finally managed to secure a paying job at the university in 1948, in 1950 they decamped to Brookhaven, where both were employed until their retirement (Maurice would direct the laboratory between 1961 and 1973).

Cécile Dewitt-Morette (b. 1922) didn’t get picked up in our ACAP selection criteria, but when one finds discussion of the intellectual ferment among postdocs at the Institute for Advanced Study in the late 1940s (as in Dave Kaiser’s Drawing Theories Apart on Feynman diagrams), her name inevitably comes up as one of the key players.  She met her husband, general relativity physicist Bryce Dewitt (1923-2004) there and remained in America, but went on to found the physics summer school at Les Houches in her native France.  She and Bryce were at the University of North Carolina (1956-1972), but she was never given a promotion.  They moved to the University of Texas at Austin, where she is currently professor emerita.

Although husbands and wives have collaborated, wives generally developed their own research programs.  We can always find exceptions: moving to the present day, Margaret Murnane (b. 1959 in Limerick, Ireland), and her husband Henry Kapteyn jointly run a laser research lab at JILA at the University of Colorado.  Murnane and Kapteyn met in graduate school (Murnane received her PhD from Berkeley in 1989), and, unlike predecessor couples discussed here, were both able to find positions at Washington State, Michigan, and, finally, JILA.

Being part of a married couple seems to have been a mixed blessing for women in mid-20th-century physics.  On the one hand, initial evidence seems to indicate that it was practically a prerequisite for reaching the highest echelons of the profession in mid-twentieth-century America.  The strength taken from the marriage seems to have been mainly in the moral support wives were given in their pursuit of a long-term physics career, rather than any influence male physicists were able to exercise over their wives’ careers, which was generally very little.  Indeed, the marriage was often used by universities to avoid hiring wives on as professors: “anti-nepotism” was habitually invoked as a barrier.  Sketchy evidence suggests the rise of national laboratories and new departments helped allay this difficulty.

Another interesting point is that both women in general, and women married to physicists in particular, who were pioneers in building highly successful careers in physics seem to have often been foreign-born.  (For another exception, one might look to Mildred and Gene Dresselhaus; Mildred, born in 1930, was the second female APS president in 1984, and is often cited as a crucial influence on women students at MIT).  In other words, while the process has traditionally been difficult for all women, the terrain seems to have been particularly forbidding for girls growing up in more typical American families.  Actually, Illinois professor Laura Greene (b. 1952) is the subject of a short video about her own experiences that addresses her own experiences going into physics after growing up in a non-scientific family in Cleveland:

For further information on women in physics, one should look to the unfortunately neglected Contribution of Women to Twentieth-Century Physics website, and the related book, Out of the Shadows, edited by Nina Byers and Gary Williams, which also focus on individual, high-level women.



1. Thony C. - May 9, 2010

A lovely post Will but I think that to be in a position to make any sort of meaningful statement about physicist couples one would have to compare their frequency within the discipline of physics with the frequency of similar professional pairs in other disciplines.

Intellectuals tend to marry people that they meet during their studies so physicists marrying physicists, mathematicians marrying mathematicians or historians marrying historians etc. is a natural consequence of this fact.

My professor, a philosopher, married a mathematician which seems to contradict the ‘disciplinary pairs rule’ (!) but they actually met as he, already holder of the chair in philosophy, was studying mathematics, as a “student”, in order to deepen his knowledge for his work on the philosophy of mathematics. Is this a case of mathematician marrying mathematician?

Just some thoughts stimulated by your excellent post.

2. Will Thomas - May 9, 2010

You’re right, I ought to have mentioned that caveat. I think what struck me was the fact that until the last few decades, if we had a woman physicist in ACAP, it was practically inevitable that she would be married to another physicist, though not necessarily (in fact, probably not) one who was more successful, or powerful, etc. (This would diverge from the woman-working-in-shadows-of-famous-astronomer model of prior centuries). I don’t suspect this is peculiar to physics, but given the lamentably low number of women who have traditionally been in physics compared to other fields, perhaps it is more consistently the case. In more recent years, this seeming inevitability has gone away, but, of course, we do still have physicist couples for these same reasons that you mention. In fact, I’m about to put in the 2010 NAS members, and one of the men is married to a woman who is already in ACAP.

3. Blogs - May 11, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #10…

The dearth of history of science post continues. So this week’s Smöråsbord is a bit short. Nonetheless, here are few interesting posts from the past week: Singular Optics: Light Chasing its Own Tail — If you have any interest in o…

4. Will Thomas - May 14, 2010

Woah, speak of the devil, here is an article in Science about this very topic, including extensive discussion with Londa Schiebinger, who has written about the history of gender and science.

5. Thony C. - May 16, 2010

The article even takes the direction I said was necessary in my comment! Maybe they had a quick read here first ;)

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