Across the world, the scientific community has long failed to offer full recognition to the accomplishments of women. From the physicist Marie Curie to the chemist Rosalind Franklin, female scientists often only get passing mentions in textbooks as many historians pay scant attention to these scientists’ contributions to their fields. In the Arab world, Women’s History Month provides an opportunity to revisit the revolutionary achievements of some of the 20th century’s top minds, foremost among them the Egyptian nuclear physicist Sameera Moussa.
Moussa’s career represented a series of firsts for Egypt: the first woman to earn a doctorate in nuclear radiation from Cairo University, the first woman to hold a teaching position at the country’s leading public university, and — the most famous of her triumphs — Egypt’s first female nuclear physicist. Her academic legacy, which inspired a generation of scientists in the North African country, throughout the region, and the world over, belies Moussa’s humble origins.
Sameera Moussa’s career represented a series of firsts for Egypt.
Born on March 3, 1917, in Gharbia Governorate north of Cairo, Moussa lost her mother to cancer at an early age. Following her mother’s death, Moussa’s father relocated the family to Cairo, where he established a hotel and enrolled her in the al-Shok primary school. Sameera Moussa later attended the Banat el-Ashraf secondary school, an educational institution affiliated with the well-known political activist Nabawya Moussa. The budding scientist’s excellent marks in primary and secondary school paved the way for her admission to Cairo University.
Moussa studied X-rays at Cairo University, receiving a bachelor of science in radiology with first-class honors in 1939. She went on to obtain her doctorate there as well, capturing the attention of Moustafa Mousharafa, who led the faculty of science at the time. He recruited her as a lecturer, and Moussa soon graduated to the position of assistant professor. In her spare time, the scientist volunteered at Egyptian hospitals to assist patients suffering from cancer.
Nuclear medicine and the war on cancer soon became the lifeblood of Moussa’s work, perhaps motivated by the loss of her mother. A number of accounts attribute some variation of the quotation, “I’ll make nuclear treatment as available and as cheap as Aspirin” to her.
Moussa developed a formula to split the atoms of copper, a breakthrough in nuclear technology. Her research laid the groundwork for a revolution in the affordability and safety of nuclear medicine, and Moussa’s scholarship reverberated well outside the borders of her homeland.
From the outset of her career, Egypt’s first nuclear physicist demonstrated an interest in foreign collaborations. During her doctoral studies, Moussa spent time in the United Kingdom. As a professor, she also encouraged many of her students to travel overseas. One of Moussa’s most remarkable endeavors remains a conference that she organized under the banner of “atomic energy for peace,” calling on countries across the world to support and regulate nuclear power.
Moussa organized a conference under the banner of “atomic energy for peace.”
Moussa served as one of the first participants in the Fulbright Program, a prestigious initiative established in 1946 and overseen by the United States Department of State. In 1951, the Fulbright Program awarded her a grant to conduct research in the United States. Her impressive résumé even bought access to some of the superpower’s secretive research centers for nuclear technology, causing a small controversy because of her status as the first non-citizen to receive such an invitation. Moussa also declined an offer of American citizenship during this period.
Moussa’s time in the United States came to an abrupt end on August 5, 1952, when she died in a car crash in California. The mysterious circumstances of her death, such as the absence of a driver after police arrived to investigate the incident, fed theories that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad or some other cabal orchestrated her assassination because of her work on nuclear technology. The debate over the allegations has continued well into the 21st century.
In the seven decades since Moussa’s passing, the relevance of nuclear technology has only grown. Her homeland is investing significant resources in the development of the El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant, a multibillion-dollar project that—in a nod to Moussa’s passion for overseas cooperation—has seen the North African country seek partners as far afield as South Korea. Egypt has also reached memoranda of understanding on nuclear technology with Australia, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and four other countries.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Moussa’s call for “atomic energy for peace” has fallen on deaf ears. Many Arab and Western governments fear that Iran is using research on nuclear power and medicine as a pretext to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. The open secret of Israel’s nuclear arsenal has likewise fueled tensions with Iran and across the region. At the same time, Moussa demonstrated how nuclear technology could serve as a force for good in the Middle East.
Moussa’s career will continue to inspire the next crop of female nuclear physicists in the Arab world.
Egypt remains proud of this aspect of Moussa’s legacy. She earned the nickname “Miss Curie of the East,” a reference to the renowned European physicist, and the Egyptian Army bestowed her with an award in recognition of her scientific accomplishments in 1953; she later received another posthumous honor from Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president assassinated in 1981. In 2019, Maha Hesham, a student specializing in graphic design at the American University of Cairo at the time, even depicted Moussa in a series of stamps that also included female Egyptian historical figures such as the activist Safiya Zaghloul.
Moussa’s career will continue to inspire the next crop of female nuclear physicists in the Arab world, many of whom may have to confront obstacles similar to what she faced. “There have been only a few Egyptian female scientists in the history of the country,” quipped a 2019 article in Al-Monitor that gave Moussa as its only example.
Still, researchers have found that women represent a majority of students specializing in physics in many Muslim-majority countries, a promising sign for Arab and Muslim women’s future in the scientific community.
Egypt’s investment in nuclear energy will require more women to follow in Moussa’s footsteps, and headlines about nuclear proliferation in Iran and Israel will draw renewed attention to her calls for the peaceful use of nuclear power. Her contributions to nuclear medicine also set the stage for health professionals in Egypt and overseas to continue the war on cancer, a worldwide campaign that echoes her support for foreign partnerships.
Moussa achieved fame as Egypt’s first nuclear physicist, but her legacy will go much farther.