5 Immigrants and Refugees Who Changed U.S. Science

The U.S. has a long history of providing safe haven for scientists and has welcomed immigrants who wish to contribute to the U.S. commitment to the pursuit of scientific truth. 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #224

Chien-Shiung Wu

Born in Liuho, China, Chien-Shiung Wu earned her physics degree from the National Central University before becoming a researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Academia Sinica. In 1936, she determined the best way to advance her career was to pursue her studies in the U.S. So she took a steamship from China to the western U.S. and enrolled in grad school at the University of California in Berkeley.

Wu studied radioactivity, including improving the techniques employed by Geiger counters for measuring nuclear radiation levels, as faculty at Smith College, Princeton University, and later Columbia University. She was part of the Manhattan Project to develop the first nuclear weapons during World War II and made major contributions to our understanding of the Standard Model of particle physics through her experiment that proves particle parity is violated by the weak force.

Wu was the first female instructor at Princeton and the first female president of the American Physical Society. She also was awarded the National Medal of Science.

Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch

Born in Danzig, Germany, Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch obtained her PhD in 1932 despite the prejudices against her as a Jewish woman scientist. She fled the Nazi government a year later and became a lecturer at Columbia University. Gluecksohn-Waelsch laid the foundation for studies of developmental genetics in mammals, specifically the genetics of differentiation, or the process determining how cells from a fertilized egg develop.

Despite her active research contributions, Columbia did not grant professorships to women and so Gluecksohn-Waelsch eventually left to become a full professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and later earned the National Medal of Science.

Albert Einstein

Of course, a discussion of refugee scientists would not be complete without this podcast’s namesake, Albert Einstein. Born in Ulm, Germany, Einstein was targeted by the Nazi government both as a Jew and as a theoretical physicist whose work promoted theories of relativity that challenged what we understood from Newtonian mechanics. Luckily, Einstein was visiting the U.S, when Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933 so he did not return to the Berlin Academy of Sciences where he was a professor. Had Einstein timed his trip to the U.S. differently or were he less famous (and thus likely less welcome to stay in the U.S.), his contributions to our understanding of the photoelectric effect and his theories of general and special relativity may have been lost.

These stories are only a few examples, of course. Erwin Schrodinger escaped Austria after the Germans took over in WWII. Johannes Kepler escaped Austria and later Prague. Emmanuel Dongala fled the civil war in the Republic of the Congo in the 1990s, and San Thang fled Vietnam after communist forces took Saigon at the end of Vietnam War.

The U.S. has a long history of providing safe haven for scientists and has welcomed immigrants who wish to contribute to the U.S. commitment to the pursuit of scientific truth. We will never know what advancements may have been lost due to refugees turned away or immigrants denied entry, but we can take measures to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.