On November 1, 1991, 28-year-old Gang Lu, who had received his doctoral degree in physics during the previous spring, killed four faculty members and one student before seriously wounding another at the University of Iowa. Lu then committed suicide. Allegedly Lu was angry that he did not receive the prestigious D. C. Spriestershach Dissertation Prize, which was accompanied by a monetary award of $2,500 and would have increased the likelihood that Lu would have been hired.
On the day of the shootings, Lu entered Van Allen Hall at the University of Iowa campus, armed with a .38-caliber revolver. Van Allen was home to the university’s physics and astronomy programs. Lu first shot and killed Christopher Goertz, Dwight Nicholson, Robert Smith, and Linhua Shan. Shan, also a physics student from China, had won the dissertation prize Lu coveted. Next, Lu left Van Allen Hall and entered the main administration building, Jessup Hall. He asked to see T. Anne Cleary, assistant vice president for academic affairs. He shot her, and she died the next day. Students have said they first thought these gunshots were firecrackers or pranks. Lu then shot a student employee, Miya Rodlofo-Sioson, in the mouth. She did not die but was left paralyzed from the neck down when the bullet went through her spinal cord. When he learned that police had arrived at the campus, Lu shot himself in the head.
Lu clearly planned the attack for many months, purchasing his weapon around the same time he was awarded his doctoral degree. He purchased another gun during the summer and practiced shooting at targets. In the weeks prior to the murder, he emptied his bank account and sent the money to his sister in China, asking her to deposit it as quickly as possible. On the day of the attack, he wrote a letter describing his grievances. He made photocopies of this letter and mailed them to news media in Iowa as well as to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times newspapers. A copy of the letter was in his briefcase in a seminar room. Lu insisted that Goertz, Smith, and Nicholson–all professors–had favored Shan and snubbed him. He had complained to Cleary and felt she ignored him. Rodlofo-Sioson was the only random victim.
Lu’s assault occurred in the context of an economic recession that had hit universities hard, and from which physics graduates were not excepted. Lu desperately wanted a job but did not have one. In better times, the university might have kept him on as a teaching or research assistant, but in the recession there was room for only one–and that was Shan.
There is no doubt that Lu was gifted. By junior high school, his skills in math and physics were clear, and he was selected to attend a special school. He won several awards and was admitted to Beijing University, China’s most prestigious college. In 1985, when he graduated, Lu was selected for a government-sponsored program that placed China’s most promising physics students at U.S. universities.
Two years after he arrived in the United States, Lu showed some signs of being tired of physics. He inquired about switching his major to business, but was unable to do so because he was receiving a stipend from the physics department and was not granted one when he applied to the business department. His request to transfer to electrical and computer engineering was denied as well.
Apparently Lu was also unlucky in love. He tried to date women but often ended up paying for sex rather than having a relationship.
Coach Hayden Fry led the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team in a solemn acknowledgment of the victims at their game the next day. The team stripped their helmets of all markings.
In 2007, Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his film Dark Matter, which told Gang Lu’s story. In 2009, a documentary about survivor Miya Rodolfo-Sioson was released called Miya of the Quiet Strength.
- Mann, J. (1992, June 07). The physics of revenge. Los Angeles Times.
- Marriot, M. (1991, November 4). Iowa gunman was torn by academic challenge. New York Times.
- Overbye, D. (2007, March 27). A tale of power and intrigue in the lab, based on real life. New York Times.