She grew up in Göttingen and studied there. Among her professors were the three Nobel prize winners Max Born, James Franck and Adolf Otto Reinhold Windaus. In 1930 Göppert married Dr. Joseph Edward Mayer, the assistant of James Franck. The couple moved to America, Mayer's home country.
Göppert-Mayer worked for the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1931-39, but since she was a woman she was not allowed to work on scientific projects. In 1946 she became a professor in Chicago. Here she developed a model for the nuclear shell structure. For this work she received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 together with Eugene Paul Wigner and J. Hans D. Jensen .
Maria Göppert-Mayer died in San Diego.