Wu was born on May 31, 1912, in her ancestral hometown in Taicang, Jiangsu Province, China. Wu was the only child. She was raised in Liuhe, a small town in Taicang about 40 miles from Shanghai. Her father, Wu Zhongyi (吳仲裔), was a proponent of gender equality, and he founded the Mingde Women's Vocational Continuing School. Wu left her hometown at the age of 11 to go to the Suzhou Women's Normal School No. 2.
In 1929 Wu was admitted to the National Central University which later became the Nanjing University in mainland China and was reinstated in Taiwan. According to the governmental regulations of the time, "normal school" (teacher-training college) students wanting to move on to the universities needed to serve as schoolteachers for one year. Hence, in 1929 Wu went to teach in the Public School of China (中國公學), which had been founded by Hu Shi in Shanghai.
From 1930 to 1934, Wu studied in the Physics Department of the National Central University. For two years after graduation, she did graduate-level study in physics and also worked as an assistant at the Zhejiang University. After this, Wu became a researcher at the Institute of Physics of the Academia Sinica.
Wu decided that she wanted to and needed to continue her studies in physics to a higher level than was possible to do in China. Therefore, she started making applications to study at universities overseas, especially in California. Upon receiving a favorable response in 1936, Wu and her female friend, Dong Ruofen (董若芬), a chemist from Taicang, China, embarked on the long steamship voyage from China to the West Coast of the United States.
The two women most likely arrived at the large seaport of San Francisco, because Wu enrolled in graduate school at the University of California located then just in Berkeley, California, which is also on San Francisco Bay. After some time there, Wu's high abilities and good fortune found her a position as a graduate student under the supervision of one of the world's leading physicists, Ernest O. Lawrence, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1939 for his invention of the cyclotron atom smasher and the development of its applications in physics.
Under Dr. Lawrence, Wu made rapid progress in her education and her research, and she completed her Ph.D. degree in 1940.
Wu married the physicist Luke Chia-Liu Yuan(袁家骝), two years later, in 1942. Luke Chia-Liu Yuan's grandfather was Yuan Shikai, the first President of the Republic of China and in his final days—notoriously—a short-lived, self-proclaimed Emperor of China. Wu and her husband became the parents of one son, Vincent Yuan (袁緯承), who also became a physicist.
Wu died on February 16, 1997 after suffering her second stroke at the age of 84.