Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary

By Benjamin F. Shearer; Barbara S. Shearer | Go to book overview
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ementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure came out in 1955. After its publication, both Maria and Jensen were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. But along with these honors came difficult experiences for Maria. Her great friend, Enrico Fermi, died of cancer in 1954; and in 1956 she lost her hearing in one ear. With Fermi's death, the University of Chicago and the Institute of Nuclear Studies lost much of their attraction. Teller had left earlier and Harold Urey had accepted a position at the University of California--San Diego, in La Jolla. Urey invited the Mayers to join him, so in 1959 they moved to San Diego. The University of California offered Maria her first paid professorship. After more than twenty years of volunteer work in physics, barely tolerated by the universities where she had tried to eke out a professional career, she finally became a full professor.

It almost was too late. In October 1960, Maria suffered a stroke that affected her speech somewhat and paralyzed her left arm. She enjoyed teaching and still engaged in research, but her health problems forced a slower pace. Ever since Goeppert and Jensen had published their research about the structure of the shell model, other scientists had suggested their work for the Nobel Prize. Maria was not very hopeful, and with each passing year the possibility seemed more remote.

Early in the morning of November 5, 1963, a newsman called the Mayers' house from Stockholm with the news that she and Hans Jensen had won half the Nobel Prize for their work on the shell model. Eugene Wigner, an old friend from the University of Göttingen, had been awarded the other half for his work on the atomic nucleus. Maria Goeppert-Mayer thus became the first American woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. This achievement is all the more impressive because she reached the pinnacle of her field without an academic appointment, working mostly on a volunteer or part-time basis. Recognition came late in her career but did not change the pattern of her life. Always modest about her achievements, she put the honor in perspective when she said in an interview: "If you love science, all you really want is to keep on working. The Nobel Prize thrills you, but it changes nothing."4

True to her principles, she kept on with her research and teaching, although her health began to fail seriously. In 1968 she had to have a pacemaker. The last of her many papers was written jointly with Hans Jensen and appeared in 1965. She died of a pulmonary embolism in San Diego in 1972.


Notes
1.
Joan Dash, A Life of One's Own: Three Gifted Women and the Men They Married ( New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 252.

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