Women of Discovery: Maria Goeppert Mayer

As we wrapped up Phase One of Bend, Oregon neighborhood Discovery West this month, we thought it appropriate to feature a woman after whom one of our Phase One streets was named: Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972). Mayer is one of only three women to win the Nobel Prize for Physics (in addition to Marie Curie, 1903, and Donna Strickland, 2018), an honor she received in 1963 for discovering the nuclear shell structure of the atomic nucleus.

Born in Kattowitz, which was part of Germany at the time of her birth but became part of Poland just a few years later, Dr. Mayer came from a family of academics. Despite the difficulty for women to obtain higher education at the time, she was encouraged by her 6th generation professor father to become “more than a housewife.” She received a PhD in Physics in 1930 from the University at Göttingen. Here she also met her husband, Joseph Edward Mayer, an American Rockefeller fellow.

Joseph Mayer took a professorship at Johns Hopkins University and then at Columbia University. At the time, there were rules against hiring a female professor. Dr. Mayer continued to volunteer and conduct her own research, eventually teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. After the start of World War II, she joined the Manhattan Project, which led research and development that produced the first nuclear weapons.

After moving to Chicago, she was able to secure a part-time job teaching at the University of Chicago in 1946. During this time, she also worked at the Argonne National Laboratory, where she began her physics award-winning work in earnest.

Her research led her to believe that nuclei had a shell structure that was similar to that of an atom shell structure. She wrote up her initial findings on the topic for the Physical Review in 1948, and continued her research into the nuclear physics “magic numbers…certain numbers of nucleons in an atomic nucleus result in particularly stable configurations.” She published her findings at the same time that three other German scientists – Otto Haxel, J. Hans D. Jensen, and Hans Suess – came up with the same results. The four scientists shared the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery.

After being appointed as a professor of physics at the University of California in 1960, Dr. Mayer suffered a stroke. She continued her research and teaching but never fully recovered, passing away in 1972. Several awards have been named in her honor, she was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and had her image on a postage stamp honoring female scientists. Now, she also has a street in the Bend, Oregon neighborhood of Discovery West named after her!