The Story of Sameera Moussa: World-Renowned Egyptian Nuclear Scientist
Updated: Feb 9
Born on March 3, 1917, Sameera Moussa was Egypt’s first female nuclear physicist and has served as a role model for Arab women in STEM for years to come.
She attended Cairo University, where she earned her BSc in radiology in 1939 with first class honours then her doctorate degree in atomic radiation (the first woman to do so). Moussa also became the first assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences and the first woman to hold a teaching post at the university.
She not only made strides as a woman in nuclear physics but made great research contributions to the field. 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.
After her mother’s passing due to cancer, she began to pursue research into the medical applications of nuclear technology. Her long-term goal was to make medical nuclear treatments affordable and accessible.
I’ll make nuclear treatment as available and as cheap as Aspirin. — Sameera Moussa
Moussa was also a fierce advocate for the peaceful use of nuclear technology, recognizing its potential harms. She organized the Atomic Energy for Peace Conference, bringing together leading scientists to set up a committee and protect against future nuclear hazards.
Moussa received a Fulbright Atomic Program scholarship to visit the United States and conduct research at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work sparked controversy as she was the first noncitizen allowed to visit U.S. atomic facilities. Although offered the opportunity to stay in the States and gain American citizenship, she turned it down, saying “Egypt, my dear homeland, is waiting for me.”
On August 5, 1952, a car came to pick up Sameera Moussa in Berkely, California. Moussa sat in the backseat as they left the city and headed along the California coast. She had completed her research and was preparing to return to Egypt, but she had received an invitation for a dinner. Driving along the curved cliffs of the Pacific Coast, the car suddenly swerved and plummeted 40 feet over the edge, killing her immediately. The driver jumped from the car just before the fall and later disappeared, and the invitation she received to dinner turned out to be fake. Her death was shrouded in mystery and suspicion, and some believe that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad along with Jewish-Egyptian actress Raqya Ibrahim was behind it, wanting to prevent Egypt from owning a nuclear bomb.
Posthumously, Sameera Moussa was honoured by the Egyptian Army and with the First Class Order of Science and Arts by President Anwar Sadat.