The Nobel Prize is one of the most rewarding and prestigious honors one could receive. For Maria Goeppert Mayer, however, she never believed she was eligible for her 1963 Nobel Prize for Physics. After all, she was different than most physicists; she wasn’t even paid for her research. This might be bizarre in 2018, but this was “normal” in the 1930s and ‘40s.
A young genius
Born in 1906 in Katowice, Poland, Mayer was destined for greatness at a young age while growing up in Germany. She pursued an education in mathematics, but then realized physics was her true calling. She became fascinated with quantum mechanics, and the rest is history.
In the 1930s, Mayer moved with her husband, a chemist, to America to study physics at John Hopkins University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago. Her husband was hired to teach at the universities, but Mayer was always denied due to her gender.
Eventually, the University of Chicago hired her as a professor, but there was one unfortunate exception.
Working for free
Mayer was thrilled to teach physics in Chicago, but she wasn’t granted a salary for her work. Instead, she was simply a “volunteer.” Unfortunately, in the 1930s, universities didn’t want to hire couples, no matter how talented or intelligent the wife might have been.
But while many would have been disappointed, Mayer didn’t mind being a volunteer. Instead, she focused on her physics research on the origin of elements. The physicist developed what’s now known as the “nuclear shell model,” which explains how nuclear particles are organized in atoms. This research led to earning her Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.
Finally being paid for her work
It wasn’t until 1960 when colleges realized Mayer’s true potential as a ground-breaking physicist. She was hired as a full-time professor at the University of California-San Diego. She continued to work on her research with other colleagues. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize three years later, she shared the honor with her team of scientists.
Mayer was obviously happy to be finally paid for her work. But, like many others, she cared more about her scientific research— as all scientists should.