Harriet Brooks holds an auspicious place in our series as the first female Canadian nuclear physicist. Ernest Rutherford, the British physicist who guided her graduate studies, considered her second to only Marie Curie in her aptitude. She is most famously known for her work in nuclear transmutations (the ability for one element to change into another), radioactivity, and was one of the first people to discover radon and calculate its atomic mass.

Brooks was born in Exeter, Ontario in 1875 but spent much of her childhood traveling around Ontario and Quebec because of her father’s job. Her family finally settled in Montreal where she and her sister went on to study at McGill University. (This was a mere 6 years after the very first woman had graduated from McGill.) Although she received a scholarship for the final two years of her Bachelor’s degree, this was a time when women were exempt from even qualifying for a scholarship for the first two years.  She graduated with a first-class honours B.A. in mathematics and natural philosophy in 1898 and was awarded the Anne Molson Memorial prize for outstanding performance in mathematics.

Brooks’ became the first Canadian graduate student under the guidance of Sir Ernest Rutherford where she studied electricity and magnetism for her Master’s degree. She was published in the Transactions of the Canadian Section of the Royal Society in 1899 even before her thesis was completed. She received an appointment as a non-resident tutor at the Royal Victoria College, the woman’s college at McGill and became the first woman to receive a Master’s there (in 1901) as well. She continued to work under Rutherford further doing experiments to understand the nature of radioactive emissions from thorium; these experiments went on to be considered the fundamentals of nuclear science. They shared credit when they published their findings in Royal Society Transactions and the Philosophical Magazine in 1901 and 1902.

She received a fellowship to study for her doctorate in physics in 1901 from the Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania where she won the prestigious Bryn Mawr European Fellowship. Her mentor Rutherford helped her to study at his former lab at the University of Cambridge where she became the first woman (again) to work in the Cavendish Laboratory. She did some significant work there but chose to return to the Royal Victoria College in 1903 to work on Rutherford’s team again. Brooks was appointed to the faculty of Barnard College in New York City but when she became engaged to a physics professor from Columbia University, she became locked in a battle of wills with the Dean of Barnard. Dean Laura Gil asserted that she could not marry and remain a professor at the college. Even though the head of the physics department backed her up, the dean cited the board of trustees and Brooks broke off her engagement to remain in academia.

Brooks met the Russian author, Maxim Gorky at an Adirondack retreat in late 1906 and decided to travel with him and a few other Russians to the island of Capri. While here she made the acquaintance of Marie Curie and was invited to work with her team at the Institut du Radium in Paris. Although she did receive any credit during her time there, her contributions were numerous and she has been cited in contemporary articles released by the Curie Institute. She secured a position at the University of Manchester but shortly thereafter, decided to leave her career in physics.

Brooks met and married McGill physics instructor, Frank Pitcher in 1907 and they settled down in Montreal. They had three children of which two died tragically in their teens. She remained actively involved in women’s organizations within the university but no longer worked in the field of physics. She doubted that she could find long-term employment in physics research and after Rutherford left McGill University, work in radiation there soon ended.  

She died of what was described as a “blood disorder” (most likely leukemia caused by her work with radioactive materials) in 1933. The New York Times described her in her obituary as the “Discoverer of the Recoil of a Radioactive Atom”. Ernest Rutherford, always her champion, wrote a highly praising obituary for her in Nature. She was pioneering in the fields of radon and actinium research even though her career was relatively short. She has a building named after her at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario and was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2002.

–Janice Willson

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