Notable Asian American Historical Figures

Across many disciplines, from acting to physics to labor unions, Asian American history is complex and impressive. Asian Americans have contributed many significant accomplishments to the United States, as illustrated by the careers of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu and other notable Asian American historical figures.

To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in History program.

Information about eight important Asian American historical figures.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu was a scientist.

Early Life

In 1934, Wu graduated from Taiwan’s National Central University at the top of her class. In 1940, she graduated from Berkeley with a PhD in physics.

Major Accomplishments

In 1944, Wu joined the Manhattan Project and began working at Columbia University, assisting in the creation of the atomic bomb. She made the first confirmation of Enrico Fermi’s theory that the law of parity (which states that objects and their mirror images behave the same way) did not apply during beta decay (when the nucleus of one element changes into another element).

Achievements and Accolades

In 1958, Wu became the first woman awarded an honorary ScD from Princeton University. She was the first female recipient of the Research Corporation Award (1959) and the Comstock Award from the National Academy of Sciences (1964). In 1975, she became the first female president of the American Physical Society.

Dr. Sammy Lee (1920-2016)

Dr. Sammy Lee was an Olympic diver.

Early Life

While attending Occidental College in 1942, Lee placed first in the springboard and 10-meter diving events at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championships. In 1943, he joined the Army Reserve and began studying medicine at the University of Southern California.

Major Accomplishments

During the 1948 London Olympics, Lee became the first Asian American to win a gold medal for the U.S. He took one month’s leave from the Army to represent the U.S. in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and then became the first man to win the gold for diving twice. In 1953, Lee became the first person of color to win the AAU’s award. Beginning in 1954, he became a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. Department of State.

Achievements and Accolades

In 1960, Lee served as U.S. Olympic diving coach to Bob Webster in Rome. Webster was the second man to win the gold for diving in two consecutive Olympics. In 1986, Lee raised funds for USC’s new Korean Heritage Library.

Philip Vera Cruz (1904-1994)

Philip Vera Cruz was a laborer and union leader.

Early Life

In 1926, Vera Cruz immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines to work and send money back to his family. He spent most of his time as a farm worker in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Major Accomplishments

In 1948, he participated in his first strike because of deplorable conditions in labor camps, and in the 1950s, he joined the National Farm Labor Union. In 1965, Vera Cruz joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). In the 1970s, Vera Cruz joined the national Filipino American protests against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines.

Achievements and Accolades

In 1987, President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines presented Vera Cruz with the Ninoy Aquino award for the work he did for Filipinos in America. In 1992, Vera Cruz received an award for being an Asian Pacific American labor pioneer.

Joyce Chen (1912-1994)

Joyce Chen was a chef.

Early Life

In 1949, Chen immigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family. Her cooking was in great demand by the Chinese students at Harvard and MIT during the 1950s.

Major Accomplishments

Chen opened her first restaurant in 1958. In 1962, she released her first cookbook, which sold more than 70,000 copies and has been reprinted for decades. In 1967, Chen opened her second of four restaurants, The Joyce Chen Small Eating Place, and began a cooking show on PBS called Joyce Chen Cooks.

Achievements and Accolades

Chen is credited for popularizing the Chinese buffet concept and creating the numbered menu with Chinese and English translations. She introduced new meals to America, such as moo shu pork and hot and sour soup. In 1984, Chen began selling bottled Chinese sauces and oils in supermarkets, demonstrating Chinese sauces’ marketability. In 2014, the U.S. Postal Service featured Chen among its Celebrity Chef Forever stamps.

I.M. Pei (1917-2019)

I.M. Pei was an architect.

Early Life

In 1940, Pei graduated from MIT with a degree in architecture, winning the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. He then received a master’s degree in 1946 from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard.

Major Accomplishments

In 1948, Pei became the architectural director of Webb & Knapp, where he created urban projects such as the Mile High Center in Denver, Colorado. In 1955, he founded his own architectural firm, I.M. Pei & Associates. Notable examples of his design work include John F. Kennedy International Airport, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library at Harvard, and the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Achievements and Accolades

In 1989, Pei received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for architecture. In 1993, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was made an officer of the Legion of Honor. In 2003, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Cooper-Hewitt museum.

Patsy Mink (1927-2002)

Patsy Mink was a congresswoman.

Early Life

In 1951, Mink graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. A year later, she moved back to Hawaii, where she passed the bar exam. In 1954, Mink founded the Oahu Young Democrats.

Major Accomplishments

In 1962, Mink won a seat in the Hawaii Senate. In 1964, Mink was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served on the Committee on Education and Labor from 1965 to 1977. Mink returned to Hawaii and served on the Honolulu City Council from 1983 to 1987. In 1990, Mink returned to Congress and served six terms in the House of Representatives.

Achievements and Accolades

Mink was the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress. She helped create the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. In 1972, Mink helped pass Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which later became the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act. In 1974, she passed the Women’s Educational Equity Act.

Merle Woo (1941)

Merle Woo is an academic.

Early Life

From 1968 to 1969, Woo witnessed the Third World Liberation Front student strike at San Francisco University. Woo credits the Educational Opportunity Program and affirmative action that resulted from the strike for her career and politics.

Major Accomplishments

In June 1982, Woo was fired from her job as a lecturer at Berkeley for supporting student protests against racist and conservative policies. In 1989, an outside arbitrator declared the firing “unreasonable,” ruling that the university should reinstate her with full back pay, benefits, and seniority.

Achievements and Accolades

In 1994, Woo won the Humanitarian Award. In 2003, her poetry collection, Yellow Woman Speaks, was expanded and reissued by Radical Women Publications.

Anna May Wong (1905-1961)

Anna May Wong was an actress.

Early Life

In 1919, at age 14, Wong was cast as an extra in the film The Red Lantern. In 1921, Wong dropped out of Los Angeles High School to pursue her acting career full time.

Major Accomplishments

When she was 17, she starred in The Toll of the Sea, one of the first movies made in Technicolor. After finding success in Europe, Wong returned to the U.S. in the 1930s, making a point to protest stereotypes and misrepresentations of Asian American characters.

Achievements and Accolades

In 1943, Wong toured China to learn more about her heritage, filming her journey to present an authentic China to viewers. She raised money for Chinese refugees during World War II. In 1951, Wong became the first Asian American to star in a television series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. After her death, the Asian-American Arts Awards and the Asian Fashion Designers group named annual awards after her.

A Lasting Legacy

The Asian American community has greatly contributed to American culture. From sports to protests to cuisine to the arts, Asian American historical figures have inspired and demanded change. Constantly breaking boundaries and expanding the idea of what it means to be American, the community has bettered the country.


Atomic Heritage Foundation, Chien-Shiung Wu

Bayani Art, Philip Vera Cruz

Encyclopedia Britannica, I.M. Pei

Encyclopedia of World Biography, I.M. Pei Biography

The Feminist eZine, Nellie Wong and Merle Woo

Freedom Socialist Party, “Merle Woo vs. University of California Berkeley: The History”

Harper’s Bazaar, “Hollywood Tries to Right Anna May Wong’s Story — Here’s What Really Happened”

History, Arts, and Archive, Mink, Patsy Takemoto

International Swimming Hall of Fame, Dr. Sammy Lee

Joyce Chen Foods, “Savoring the Legacy of Joyce Chen”

National Museum of International Diplomacy, Dr. Sammy Lee

National Park Service, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, The First Lady of Physics

National Women’s History Museum, Anna May Wong

National Women’s History Museum, Biography: Patsy Mink

National Women’s History Museum, Joyce Chen Biography

Occidental College, “Two-Time Olympic Gold Medalist Dr. Sammy Lee ’43 Dies”

People Pill, About Merle Woo

She Thought It, Chien-Shiung Wu

Women & The American Story, Anna May Wong

Women & The American Story, Life Story: Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

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