Women’s Day was originally conceived at the turn of the 20th century and used in many countries as a focal point for the women’s suffrage movement, and other equal rights for women. 8th of March became a national holiday in the Soviet Union in 1917 after women gained suffrage there. It was recognised by the United Nations in 1977 and continues to be celebrated around the world in different ways. Today we commemorate the lives of three inspiring women physicists.
Florence Martin (1867-1957)1,2
Florence Martin enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1891 and successfully completed a year of physics classes. During her second year, she began working as an unpaid research assistant to Richard Threlfall who was a family friend. In 1893 she wrote her first paper with Threlfall, verifying Maxwell’s equations in magnetic circuits (pictured).
After this, Threlfall introduced Martin to his old friend, J J Thomson at the University of Cambridge and Martin sailed to England to spend three years working with Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory. Here she took undergraduate practical classes and pursued her own research on the gas expansion caused by electric discharge. When Martin returned to Sydney she worked with Threlfall for another two years, until he left for England. This signalled the end of Martin’s career in physics.
In 1905, Martin met a wealthy American couple and spent the next few years travelling the world with them. When the couple died in 1918, she inherited their estate in Denver, Colorado. She settled there, and spent the rest of her life as a patron of the arts.
Wang Ming-Chen (1906-2010)3,4,5
Wang Ming-Chen studied physics at Ginling College, Nanjing and at Yanjing University in Beijing. After receiving her Master’s degree from Yanjing University in 1932, she applied for a scholarship to study abroad. Despite gaining top marks in her class, she did not qualify and had to return to teach in Ginling College. She remained there until the Japanese invasion of 1937, when she fled to Wuhan. In 1938, Wang was able to move to the USA for doctoral work and earned her PhD in statistical mechanics from the University of Michigan in 1942. For the remainder of the second World War, Wang worked at the MIT Radiation Laboratory (where wartime radar research was taking place). During this time, she published “On the theory of Brownian motion II” with G.E. Uhlenbeck.
After the war, Wang returned to China and became a professor at Yunnan University in 1946. However, she only stayed for a few years and returned to the USA in 1949 to work at the University of Notre Dame. However, as political tensions between the US and China increased during the period of McCarthyism in the US, Wang was regularly harassed by the FBI. She applied to return home in 1953, but it took two years for this to be approved and she only came back to China in 1955.
Wang became a professor of physics at Tsinghua University in Beijing. At this time there was a strong focus on teaching in China, and Wang stopped her research in order to teach courses on statistics and thermodynamics. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966, she was arrested and imprisoned for seven years, on account of her husband being a political target. Later, she told a friend that she focussed on exercising every day in prison to “remind myself that I can’t die, I must live, and I must restore my innocence.” Released in 1973, she continued working at Tsinghua University until her retirement in 1976.
Carolyn Parker (1917-1966)6,7
Carolyn Parker graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Fisk University, Tennessee, and went on to receive a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1941. This made her the first African-American woman to receive a postgraduate degree in physics. After her graduation she taught physics and mathematics in various public schools for a couple of years.
In 1943, Parker started working in the Manhattan project, which was developing atomic weapons during the second World War. She was based in Ohio, at the Dayton project, conducting research on using polonium as an initiator for atomic explosions. Due to the secretive nature of the research, not much is known about her work in this period. After the war ended, Parker left the Dayton project and continued further study at the University of Ohio.
Parker earned a second Masters in physics from MIT in 1951 . She continued research, partially fulfilling the requirements for a doctorate, however, she did not go on to defend her dissertation. Parker died at the age of 48, from leukemia, believed to be caused by her exposure to polonium during her time at the Dayton project.
- Florence Martin, Australian National Dictionary of Biography https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/martin-florence-7504. Accessed 08.03.21.
- Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/130154#page/211/mode/1up Accessed 08.03.21.
- Ming-Chen Wang, Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan https://rackham.umich.edu/project/ming-chen-wang/ Accessed 08.03.21
- Ming Chen Wang, Kai Zhang personal website, https://sites.google.com/site/kaizhangstatmech/chinese-scientists/mcwang Accessed 08.03.21
- Wang Ming-Chen, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_Ming-chen Accessed 08.03.21
- A. Powers, The First African American Woman To Obtain A Graduate Degree In Physics Was Involved In A Top Secret US Mission, Forbes 2020 https://www.forbes.com/sites/annapowers/2020/01/31/the-first-african-american-woman-to-obtain-a-graduate-degree-in-physics-was-involved-in-a-top-secret-us-mission/ Accessed 08.03.21
- Carolyn Parker, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolyn_Parker Accessed 08.03.21