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

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

By Trista

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.

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 scares, 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 Hopkin’s University. Two children, Maria Ann and Peter Conrad, would quickly follow.

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 Hopkin’s 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.