This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics

This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics

Trista - June 20, 2019

Maria Goeppert Mayer never thought she would win the Noble Prize for her research in Physics. First of all, the year was 1963 and Maria much of her work she did as a volunteer. Of course, in 2019 we find this rather strange, but Maria didn’t think so. After all, during the 1930-1950s, not being paid for work was typical, especially for a woman working in Physics. On top of this, Maria became the second woman to win the Noble Prize in Physics. She won the award after Marie Curie.

The Early Life Of A Physics Genius

Born in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia (then Germany) on June 28, 1906, Maria was the only child of Friedrich and Maria Goeppert. Education became very important in the Goeppert household because her father was the sixth generation of university professors from his family. Maria spent her time studying at private schools which would give her the knowledge needed to attend a university. At the age of 17, Maria took her college entrance exam. Even though she did it a year early, she passed with three other girls and 29 boys.

This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics
A picture of a young Maria Goeppert Mayer. Los Mundos de Brana.

In 1924, Maria started studying mathematics at the University of Göttingen. Maria chose this career because she felt it would interest her and she would be able to quickly land a job teaching due to the female mathematics teacher shortage for schools for girls. However, Maria quickly learned that mathematics wasn’t her real interest. She then turned to study Physics, obtaining her Ph.D. in the field during the 1930s. While her chances of succeeding in Physics as a woman seemed scarce, many professors became astonished by Maria’s thesis and called it a masterpiece.

Around the time Maria graduated with her Ph.D., she started dating a man named Joseph Edward Mayer. The pair first met when Joseph stayed with Maria’s family while working as an assistant for James Franck, the 1925 Noble Prize winner for Physics who also knew about Maria’s work. After they got married, Maria and Joseph moved to the United States because Joseph received a job at John Hopkins University. Two children, Maria Ann and Peter Conrad, would quickly follow.

This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics
Husband and wife physicists, Joseph and Maria Goeppert-Mayer were a pair of husband-and-wife physicists. AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Maria tried to get a job as a faculty member at John Hopkins University, but they denied her this position not only because she was married to Joseph but also because of her gender. Though, she did receive a job as an assistant in the Physics Department. Of course, the university paid her very little, and Maria worked specifically with German correspondence, which wasn’t what Maria wanted to do with her career. Slowly, she started to teach courses and publish articles.

This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics
Maria Goeppert Mayer and her daughter, Maria Ann. Science Photo.

Life Takes A Turn For Maria and Her Family

While working at John Hopkins University, Maria and Karl Herzfeld decided to study the field of quantum mechanics. While there wasn’t much interest in this field, the researchers continued to research the area and record their findings. To complete her research, Maria traveled to Gottingen during the summer of the early 1930s. Unfortunately, the analysis in Gottingen would be short-lived because many people would lose their jobs once Gottingen came under the new rule of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or the Nazi Party.

Once the Nazi Party started to come into power, Maria and Karl decided to start a relief party for the people who were troubled by the Nazi Party. They focused their attention in the United States with refugees who were trying to escape the rule of the Nazi Party. During this time, Joseph would lose his job at John Hopkins University. He blamed the sexism from the Dean of Physical Sciences, who didn’t like Maria’s presence in the chemistry labs. Due to continued struggle and criticism, Maria left John Hopkins University.

This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics
Dr. Maria Goeppert Mayer. Evening Tribune.

Maria Works Her Magic During World War 2

In 1941, right before the United States entered World War 2, Maria took a paid position at Sarah Lawrence College. However, when the United States entered World War 2 in the spring of 1942, Maria took time to help with the Manhattan Project. She worked part-time with Substitute Alloy Materials (SAM) Laboratories at Columbia University. While here, Maria was given the task of separating the fissile uranium-235 isotope in natural uranium. Through her research, Maria realized that separating wouldn’t happen then; however, her research has helped other physicists.

Maria continued to research at Columbia University, often pairing with Edward Teller. One of these research projects was the Opacity Project. This project was a part of the development of thermonuclear weapons, which are more commonly called hydrogen bombs. During the year months of 1945, Joseph went to the Pacific Coast in order to assist the United States in World War 2. Right after her husband left, Maria decided to head to Los Alamos Laboratory where Teller and his group continued their research.

Thankfully, for Maria, her husband would return a few months later. With the ending of World War 2, Maria decided to leave the Los Almos Laboratory and go to New York with her husband during the summer of 1945. At this point, both Maria and Joseph were reunited with their children who stayed in New York with friends while Joseph was in the Pacific War and Maria went to Los Alamos Laboratory. After his return, Joseph accepted a job as a professor at the University of Chicago, which allowed Maria to receive a volunteer role.

This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics
Dr. Maria Goeppert Mayer won a Nobel prize in physics, for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. Jack Fields / Science Photos.

Volunteer Maria Wins the Nobel Prize in Physics

On top of Maria’s volunteer assistant professor rule at the University of Chicago, she also took on a part-time position at the Argonne National Laboratory. At this location, Maria was a senior physicist. While Maria felt like she didn’t know much about nuclear physics when she received the position, she dove into her role and soon found herself programming the Aberdeen Proving Ground’s ENIAC. This program used the Monte Carlo method to help solve problems with the liquid metal cooling reactor.

One of the most significant career milestones Maria accomplished was while she worked at the University of Chicago and the Argonne National Laboratory. Here she worked on research for the development of the structure for nuclear shells by creating a mathematical formula to advance her research. Her research stated why the magical numbers of 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126 create stable configurations. Maria would go on to publish her results from the research during the 1950s.

During this same time, other scientists, Otto Haxel, J. Hans Suess, and Hans D. Jensen were working on the same type of research. Maria handed in her results for review in February 1949, and the three other scientists handed their results in for critique in April 1949. While Haxel, Suess, and Jensen’s findings were published in June of 1949 in the Physical Review, Maria’s results received publication later. Around this time. Maria, Haxel, Suess, and Jensen all got together in order to advance their research.

This Amazing Woman Volunteered For Free and Won the Nobel Prize in Physics
In December 1963, Dr. Mayer attended the Noble Prize ceremony. She is pictured here approaching the King of Sweden to receive her medal as the second woman to earn the prize in physics. UC Berkeley, University Archives / Online Archives of California.

With the findings of their combined research, Haxel, Suess, Jensen, and Maria published a book in 1950 called the Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure. In 1963, Maria along with Jensen would receive the Noble Prize in Physics for their research. The research the prize focused on was their scientists’ discoveries with the nuclear shell structure. Maria became the second woman to accept the Noble Prize in Physics. No other woman would go on to receive the Noble Prize in Physics until 2018 when Donna Strickland became a recipient.

Even though Maria suffered a stroke in the early 1960s, she continued teaching as a professor at the University of California, San Diego for years. In 1965, Maria became elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She passed away on February 20, 1972, in San Diego, California after suffering a heart attack. Not too long after her death, the American Physical Society established the Maria Goeppert Mayer Award, which is awarded to young women in the Physics field. She also received an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“Maria Goeppert Mayer Biographical.” Nobel Prize.

“Maria Goeppert Mayer.” Encyclopedia Britannica. February 2019.

“Maria Goeppert-Mayer.” Famous Scientists.

“Maria Goeppert Mayer Facts.” The Noble Prize.