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History of Women in Physics

Until late in the twentieth century, women faced significant, and sometimes insurmountable, challenges in gaining access to higher education in the physical sciences and engineering. In the physical sciences, women who did succeed in earning doctorates often faced employment discrimination and encountered barriers to combining a career in science with having a family.

For example, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics for developing the nuclear shell model of atomic nuclei, was forced to perform her Nobel research as an unpaid “volunteer” scientist because of anti-nepotism rules. Anti-nepotism rules were in place at most universities and government laboratories through much of the twentieth century. A woman whose husband had a position had little professional recourse until things gradually began to shift during the second half of the Twentieth Century. Goeppert-Mayer secured her first paid position at the University of California at San Diego in 1959 at age 53 — three years after she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and just four years before she won the 1963 Nobel Prize.

Physicist Lise Meitner never won a Nobel Prize though many consider her the most significant woman scientist of the twentieth century for her role in the discovery of nuclear fission. A physicist of Jewish origin, Meitner fled Nazi Germany to Sweden in 1938. Alhough she secretly collaborated with her long-time colleague, Otto Hahn, on his demonstration of nuclear fission, Hahn denied her contributions, not only during the war, but afterwards as well. Eventually, she did share the Enrico Fermi Prize with Hahn and their colleague Fritz Strassman in 1966. In 1992, element 109 was named Meitnerium in her honor.

Despite facing challenges, many other pioneering women scientists made major contributions to physics between 1876 and 1976. Nevertheless, most of these women were systematically left out of history books. In 2006, physicists Nina Byers and Gary Williams remedied this omission with Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth Century Women to Physics.

One of the 40 women profiled in Out of the Shadows was Katharine Burr Blodgett, who helped develop the Langmuir-Blodgett molecular films with Irving Langmuir. Blodgett was also aunt (and inspiration) to her namesake Katharine Gebbie, who became the first women JILA Fellow in 1974.

At JILA, Gebbie conducted research in astrophysics for 12 years before going into administration for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). From 1988 to 1991, she served as NIST’s Quantum Physics Division Chief at JILA.

In 1991, Gebbie left JILA to design and run NIST’s new Physics Laboratory, which oversees, among other things, the NIST Boulder Laboratories, including the Quantum Physics Division. In this position, Gebbie continues to work to ensure that NIST physicists at JILA receive the support they need to perform cutting-edge research — regardless of their gender. However, like many women physicists, Gebbie has served as a member and/or chair of many committees devoted to furthering the careers of women in physics.

After Gebbie left to run the Physics Laboratory, the JILA Fellows began to address issues unique to women and others who have been traditionally underrepresented in physics. The six women who currently serve on the JILA faculty are reaping the benefits of these solutions.

JILA follows the six University nodes' policies for ensuring harassment-free environments. For more detailed information regarding the University of Colorado policies, please read the Discrimination and Harassment Policy and Procedures.