Cairo, Egypt was a flourishing destination in the 1920s. Tutankhamen’s tomb was “discovered” putting Cairo at the center of the world. Enamored westerners began fawning over Egyptian history, culture, and fashion. Many folks from around the world found opportunity in the cosmopolitan city after World War I destroyed much of Europe and racism of the Jim Crow south rampaged through the United States. The revolution of 1919 signified Egypt’s new liberal age that led to independence from imperialist British rule. Yet for Egyptian women, this period didn’t seem “liberal” as the traditions of gender segregation in schools and limited schooling once girls reached puberty were the norm. Even under new independent governance, Egyptian women were prohibited from voting and purposefully left out of the political process despite being an integral part of fighting for Egypt’s independence.
This was the period in which Sameera Moussa grew up. Yet despite gender-based discrimination, she earned the title “The Mother of Atomic Energy”, as the first Egyptian woman to become a nuclear physicist, holding a doctorate degree in atomic radiation. Her story is one of dedication, ethics, and compassion.
Moussa was born in 1917 north of Cairo, Egypt, during the Gharbia governate. Her mother died of cancer while Moussa was a young child, leading her family to move to the city of Cairo, where she and her siblings could pursue education. Her father, Hajj Moussa Ali, enrolled her in both primary and secondary school, where the beginning of a successful academic journey began.
Moussa was a gifted scholar, achieving high marks in her studies; at the age of 16 she wrote a book on the topic of Algebra! Her scholarly achievements led to her eventual acceptance into Cairo University, where she was ranked first in her class. In 1939 she achieved her Bachelors of Science in Radiology, and had performed research on the effects of X-ray radiation.
After receiving her Bachelor’s degree, Moussa became an assistant professor at Cairo University, the first woman to achieve this position. She then went on to obtain her PhD in atomic radiation, again being the first woman to achieve this. Despite a full workload of an assistant professor, she also volunteered frequently in hospitals with cancer patients.
“My wish is for nuclear treatment of cancer to be as available and as cheap as Aspirin.”-Dr. Sameera Moussa
Witnessing her mother’s death, Moussa was driven to find treatments for cancer using her knowledge of nuclear radiation. She went on to research ways to break the atoms of metals like copper, allowing for the eventual creation of a cheaper X-ray. Moussa organized The Atomic Energy for Peace conference during the 1940s, where committees created ways to protect society against nuclear hazards. This was of particular significance, as this occurred during World War II, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Moussa’s impressive contributions awarded her a Fulbright scholarship in 1951, giving her the opportunity to travel to the United States for work in atomic facilities, despite being a non-American citizen, the first allowed to do so. Tragically, at the age of 35, she was killed in a car crash in California prior to her return home. Posthumously, she was awarded the Order of Merit for Science and Art, First Class by the Egyptian military.
Sameera Moussa’s contributions to science paved the way for thousands of women in the future to pursue goals that they were previously taught were unattainable. We thank Moussa for her ethics during a time of war, her compassion for working to cure medical tragedies like cancer, and for inspiring generations to come.
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?
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Watch this short video about Dr. Moussa’s life by The Lawrence Hall of Science
Check out this in-depth recount of Dr. Moussa’s influence on her country by Austin Bodetti
Isabelle McDonald is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She is interested in studying stereotypic and abnormal behaviors in dairy cattle. She is currently researching oral behavior patterns in dairy heifers. She’s also an avid dog-lover!
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Ghoneim, L. (2021, February 7). “Samira Moussa; the unfulfilled dream.” SciPlanet. https://www.bibalex.org/SCIplanet/en/Article/Details.aspx?id=13677
Khalil, R., Karim, A. A., & Moustafa, A. A. (2021). Milestones of Egyptian Women’s Progress in Education and Science from the Nineteenth Century to the Present. In Female Pioneers from Ancient Egypt and the Middle East (pp. 47-60). Springer, Singapore.
Matta, N. (2022, February 5). “Sameera Moussa, First Female Egyptian Nuclear Physicist.” Medium, https://medium.com/rediscover-steam/sameera-moussa-first-female-egyptian-nuclear-physicist-fec6c2db926c.
[Edited by Karli Chudeau]