It is bewildering to know that during the early 20th century, when there were the likes of Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi, there was also the phenomenal Egyptian nuclear physicist Sameera Moussa. Women in the field of science, technology, engineering and math remain largely under-represented and unacknowledged until today, which is why it is important to document those from the past and also inspire those in the present.
Born in Gharbia governorate in 1917, Moussa was met with the tragic news of her mother’s death very early on, which prompted her to dedicate her life to making nuclear treatment accessible by all, hoping that it would be “as cheap as aspirin,” as she once said. Moussa spent her life volunteering at many hospitals to help treat cancer patients – a great embodiment of commitment and devotion.
Moussa went on to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in radiology with First Class Honors from Cairo University in 1939, after researching the effects of X-ray radiation on different materials. Following her achievement of receiving a doctorate in atomic radiation, she later became the first woman to hold the position of a lecturer and assistant professor in Cairo University.
In England, she made two significant contributions in physics. First, she came up with the historic equation that would break the atoms of cheap metals such as copper – a discovery that would help in making the medical applications of nuclear technology, such as X-rays, cheaper.
At a time when the Second World War was ongoing, and the events of bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were occurring, Moussa was still determined to show the world that nuclear technology should not always be dangerous. She helped organize the conference “Atomic Energy for Peace” in England, which called on governments to establish advisory councils that would regulate the industry and provide protection against safety hazards.
This was all impressively done during a period of time when knowledge of atomic development was little and only in the hands of top officials in government. A year after her conference, President Eisenhower in 1953 delivered a famous speech, “Atoms for Peace”, to the UN General Assembly. It was the first time that the topic of atomic energy was publicly mentioned, and it aimed to spread the idea that “atomic dilemma” could be solved by finding ways to make it a contributor in saving people’s lives.
“The United States pledges before you – and therefore before the world its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma – to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life,” he said.
This speech created the ideological background for important organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which both aim to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy and achieve nuclear disarmament around the world.
Moussa’s work was recognized as she was awarded the prestigious and competitive Fulbright scholarship that gave her the opportunity to travel to the United States and study in California. Remarkably, she was given permission to visit top secret US atomic facilities and was the first non-US person to ever do so.
There were several offers given to her to acquire the American citizenship and live in the United States, yet she turned them down after saying “Egypt, my dear homeland, is waiting for me”.
On her way to return home, however, the car suddenly rushed down from a height of 40 feet and she was killed. The absence of the driver by the time the police arrived to witness the crash sparked many suspicions that this was a planned assassination by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, to prevent Egypt from acquiring any knowledge on nuclear technology.
A year later in 1953, the Egyptian Army honored her and she was awarded the Order of Merit for Science and Art, First Class. A school and a laboratory in her home village were also named after her.
Nonetheless, the doors remain open for new Egyptian female scientists to take over and make momentous changes for their country and the world.