Harriet Brooks

Play episode
Hosted by

She is one of the greatest scientists in Canadian history and someone whose work is being rediscovered. Her impact on the world of nuclear physics cannot be understated and she was considered to be on the same level as Marie Curie.

She was Harriet Brooks and today I am looking at her life

Harriet Brooks was born in Exeter, Ontario on July 2, 1876, the third of nine children to George and Elizabeth Brooks. Her father worked at his own flour mill until it burned down. It was sadly not covered by insurance and this would hit the family hard. He would have to work as a commercial traveller for a flour firm to make ends meet. As a result of this new job, the family had to move throughout Quebec and Ontario during Brooks’ childhood. Eventually, the family would settle in Montreal.

The couple would eventually have nine children and only Harriet and her sister Elizabeth went on to attend university.

For Harriet, she would go to McGill University in 1894 at the age of 18. This was a big step as McGill had only graduated its first female student only six years previous.

Her genius was clear and she would receive a scholarship for her final two years of her degree studies, but oddly because she was a woman she was not allowed to have a scholarship for the first two years.

Nonetheless, she would graduate with first class honours and a B.A. in mathematics and natural philosophy in 1898. Her outstanding performance in mathematics would earn her the Anne Molson Memorial Prize.

Sir Ernest Rutherford, considered the father of nuclear physics, was working at McGill University at the time and Brooks would be the first graduate student in Canada for him. He would also see her genius immediately and after graduating, she began to work with him. It was with him that she would study magnetism and electricity and earn her master’s degree. In 1899, before the thesis was even done, her work was published in the Transactions of the Canadian Section of the Royal Society. She would then receive an appointment as nonresident tutor at the Royal Victoria College that same year.

In 1901, she became the first woman at McGill to receive a Master’s degree.

Following finishing her degree, Brooks would begin to do a series of experiments to determine the nature of radioactive emissions from thorium. Her experiments would serve as one of the foundations in the overall development of nuclear science. In 1901 and 1902, Rutherford and Brooks would publish papers in the Royal Society Transactions and in the Philosophical Magazine. Rutherford had put her to work trying to figure out why radioactive thorium was emitting something that could be carried away on air currents. Brooks discovered that this gas was actually radon. Her contributions to the work on Rutherford’s work on radioactive decay would help Rutherford win the Nobel Prize in 1908. Rutherford always gave credit to Brooks for making the discovery, but over time it would become associated exclusively with him. In fact, during a presentation at the Royal Society of London, Rutherford specifically gave credit to Brooks and her contributions.

It would seem that 1901 was a very big year for Brooks. Not only did she publish papers and earn her Master’s Degree, she would obtain a fellow ship to study for her doctorate in physics at Bryn Mawr College. While there, she won the extremely prestigious Bryn Mawr European Fellowship. Rutherford then arranged for Brooks to take her fellowship at his former lab in Cambridge. This allowed her to become the first woman to study at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Unlike in Canada, where she had an amazing supporter in Rutherford, her supervisor at Cambridge was J.J. Thomson, who was too preoccupied with his own research and usually ignored her progress. Without her mentor of Rutherford, her self-esteem began to fall and she began to doubt her scientific abilities and her ability to complete her PhD.

In 1903, Brooks came back to Canada to resume her position at Royal Victoria College and rejoined Rutherford. Her research would then be published in 1904.

In 1905, she was appointed to the faculty of Barnard College in New York City. In 1906, she became engaged to a physics professor at Columbia University which would lead Dean Laura Gil of Barnard to respond to this engagement by stating that any engagement would end her professional relationship with the college she was working at.

Over a series of letters, Brooks would state that she had a duty to her sex and her profession to continue her work after marriage.

She would state, “It is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has the right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries.”

Margaret Maltby, the head of the physics department at Barnard, took Brooks’ side but sadly Dean Gil had the support of college trustees who agreed that a woman could not be married and a successful academic. To keep doing her work, she called off the engagement.

Possibly because of the whole situation, Brooks would soon find herself moving away from physics at the height of her career.

By the end of 1906, she had moved to a retreat in the Adirondacks run by Fabian socialists. It was there she met Maxim Gorky, the noted Russian writer who would be a five-time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature. She would then travel with him and a group of Russians to the island of Capri. It was also during this time that she met a giant of physics, Marie Curie. Curie invited Brooks to be one of her staff in Paris. While none of Brooks’ research was published under her name during this period, her contributions were citied in three articles and was considered highly invaluable.

With her work with Thompson, Rutherford and Curie, she is likely the only person to have worked for all three Nobel Prize recipients.

At this time, she also worked to secure a position at the University of Manchester and Rutherford wrote a recommendation on her behalf. In his recommendation he would state, “next to Madame Curie, she is the most prominent woman physicist in the department of radioactivity. Miss Brooks is an original and careful worker with good experimental powers and I am confident that if appointed she would do most research work in physics.”

Oddly and unfortunately, for unknown reasons, Brooks terminated her physics career at this moment.

In 1907, she would marry Frank Pitcher, a physics instructor at McGill and settle in Montreal. Pitcher had apparently fallen in love with Brooks and wrote her over and over, insisting that she accept marriage to him and take on a domestic life that he said would give her more joy than science.

She would finally agree and Pitcher then left to go mountain hiking for a month, leaving Brooks to plan her wedding. He also insisted that she organize it as a religious wedding.

While there, she would have three children but two would sadly die in their tears. She would still be active in organizations of university women but would never again work in physics.

In 1907, she joined the Women’s Canadian Club and served as the honorary secretary from 1901 – 1912 and as president in 1923. She was also active with the Alumnae Society of McGill University.

On April 17, 1933, she would pass away at the age of 57, believed to be from leukaemia caused by radiation exposure. The New York Times would credit her as the discoverer of the recoil of the radioactive atom for her work as one of the first persons to discover radon and help to determine its atomic mass. Rutherford, her constant supporter, would write a highly laudatory obituary of Brooks in the journal Nature.

For many decades, the contributions of Brooks to physics were unknown but in the 1980s she began to be recognized for her foundational work in nuclear science. She was the first person to show that the radioactive substance emitted by thorium was a gas with a molecular weight of 400-100, which was crucial as a discovery because it showed that elements undergo some transmutation in radioactive decay.

Today, the Harriet Brooks Building, a nuclear research laboratory at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is named for her. In 2002, she was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame.

Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, CBC, Women You Should Know, Canada’s Virtual Museum,

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx

Recent posts

%d bloggers like this: