Maria Goeppert-Mayer was born in Germany on June 28, 1906, She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for developing the nuclear shell model of how protons and neutrons are arranged in the nucleus of an atom. She was the third woman ever honored by this prestigious award. Goeppert-Mayer shared the prize with fellow scientists, J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner. As a woman at that time, her career path was very different from those of the successful male scientists. She performed most of her scientific research as a volunteer — unable to get a full-time job in her field until she was 53.
In 1930, Goeppert-Mayer earned a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University at Göttingen in Germany, with three Nobel Prize winners serving on her doctoral committee: Max Born, James Franck, and Adolf Windaus. After earning her doctorate, she followed her husband and fellow scientist, Joseph Edward Mayer, to the Johns Hopkins University in the United States. There, she had honorary job titles, but no pay. In 1939, Goeppert-Mayer and her husband left Johns Hopkins for Columbia University, where they wrote a classic textbook titled Statistical Mechanics, and she taught at the nearby Sarah Lawrence College. Again, Goeppert-Mayer had no pay, just office space.
During World War II, Goeppert-Mayer worked on the separation of uranium isotopes, under Harold Urey and others at Columbia University who helped develop the atom bomb. In 1946, the Mayers followed the Dr. Urey to the University of Chicago, where she served as professor in the Physics Department and worked at the university’s Institute for Nuclear Studies. In 1948, she started her work on the nuclear shell model. But once again, she received no pay.
In 1956, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. And in 1960, she and her husband went to the University of California, San Diego, where she accepted a full professorship in physics. When she received the Nobel Prize, a San Diego newspaper ran the headline "S.D. Mother Wins Nobel Prize."
Last Revised: January 2010
Sources: Nobel Prize.Org (http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1963/mayer-bio.html, December 2009.
San Diego Supercomputer Center(http://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/mayer.html), December 2009.