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Brooks, Harriet (1876–1933)

Brooks, Harriet (1876–1933)

Canadian pioneer nuclear scientist and collaborator with Sir Ernest Rutherford, J.J. Thomson, and Marie Curie. Born Harriet Brooks on July 2, 1876, in Exeter, Ontario, Canada; died in Montreal on April 17, 1933; one of eight children of George Brooks and Elizabeth Agnes (Worden) Brooks; married Frank Pitcher, 1907; children: three.

Canadian scientist Harriet Brooks made significant contributions to the field of radiation, only to be halted by the pressures of social convention during the early stages of what might easily have developed into a great career. Light was not shed on the magnitude of her advance until two generations after her death and almost a century after her work. Harriet Brooks was born on July 2, 1876, in Exeter, a small town in western Ontario about 30 miles from London, Ontario. By the time of Harriet's birth, her parents George and Elizabeth Worden Brooks already had two children; six more would follow. The family was respectable but not wealthy, the latter particularly true after George Brooks' flour mill burned down and was not covered by insurance. From that point on, George supported his large family by working as commercial traveler for a flour firm. Visitors to the Brooks' home were always welcome to a meal, but family members dealt with the economic circumstances through a code that all, young and old, knew by heart: FHB (family hold back) if there was a shortage of food, and MIK (more in kitchen) if there were sufficient groceries on hand in the pantry.

Of the nine Brooks children, only Harriet and her sister Elizabeth Brooks would attend a university. Both had an aptitude for mathematics. Elizabeth received a mathematics scholarship for her final two years at McGill University, but being a woman disqualified her for the final two years of her classics scholarship. Harriet entered McGill University in 1894, only six years after McGill graduated its first woman (the first undergraduate degree granted to a Canadian woman was in 1875 by Mount Allison University). An excellent student, Harriet Brooks graduated from McGill with an honors B.A. in mathematics and "natural philosophy" (science) in 1898, the same year that the New Zealand-born Ernest Rutherford (later Sir Ernest Rutherford and Lord Rutherford) moved to McGill from England. Brooks became Rutherford's first graduate student and a key member of what would become his research team.

Even before it was completed in 1901, Brooks' M.A. thesis on the damping of electrical oscillations had already resulted in her first scientific publication, which had appeared in 1899 in the prestigious Transactions of the Canadian section of the Royal Society. As a promising young researcher, she received an appointment in 1899 as nonresident tutor in mathematics at the newly formed Royal Victorian College, the women's college of McGill University. During these years, her work on the Rutherford team shifted toward the new and exciting field of radium. Papers coauthored by Brooks and Rutherford in 1901 and 1902, and published in the Royal Society Transactions as well as in the venerable Philosophical Magazine, announced to the scientific community the appearance of a talent worth watching. Rutherford arranged for her to work with J.J. Thomson in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. Although Brooks did some significant laboratory work that was later published, Thomson was preoccupied with his own research and tended to ignore her progress.

In 1903, Brooks returned to the Royal Victorian College to resume her job as a nonresident tutor in mathematics and physics. She also rejoined Rutherford's research group, carrying out work that was published in 1904. In 1905, she began teaching physics at Barnard College in New York. Her life at Barnard was uneventful until the following year when she became engaged to a physics professor at Columbia University, an event that precipitated a crisis in her life. Dean Laura Gill of Barnard responded to Harriet's letter about her engagement in the strongest possible terms, noting "that whenever your marriage does take place it ought to end your official relationship with the college." A heated exchange of letters ensued in which Brooks made it clear that she felt she had "a duty" to both her profession and her sex to continue her work even after marriage. Impressed with Brooks' commitment to teaching and research, the head of Barnard's physics department, Margaret Maltby , fully backed her Canadian colleague. But Dean Gill ended the dispute by reiterating the view of the college's trustees, which argued that one could not be both a married woman and a successful academic. Soon after, the engagement was broken off, and Brooks initially agreed to stay at Barnard.

In the final months of 1906, Brooks' life took a radical turn. She met John and Prestonia Martin , two of the most prominent Fabian Socialists of the day. Through the Martins, she became acquainted with the Russian radical author Maxim Gorky. In October 1906, Brooks accompanied Gorky and his companion Maria Andreeva and several other Russians to the Italian island of Capri. During this time, Brooks made contact with Marie Curie , and soon she was in Paris working with Curie as part of her research staff. Although none of her investigations from this period were ever published under her name, Brooks' research was of considerable value and was cited in three contemporary articles published under the aegis of the Curie Institute. At the same time, she attempted to secure a position at the University of Manchester. In his letter of recommendation, Rutherford wrote about Brooks in glowing terms, noting that "next to Mme 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 excellent research work in Physics."

For reasons that even her excellent biography cannot ascertain, Harriet Brooks then decided to terminate her research in physics and abandon her plans for a university teaching career. In 1907, she married Frank Pitcher, a physics instructor at McGill. In the next years, she became the mother of three children. Brooks remained active in organizations of university women but abandoned all interest in physics. Her married life had more than its share of tragedy, with two of her three children dying while still in their teens. Harriet Brooks died on April 17, 1933, as a result of a lingering illness that was likely related to her years of exposure to radiation. Lord Rutherford wrote a highly laudatory obituary of his former research associate in the journal Nature, not surprising in view of the fact that she was repeatedly mentioned in his papers throughout his career.

Not until the 1980s, however, would the importance of the research contributions of Harriet Brooks be recognized as being among the foundations of modern nuclear science. Brooks was the first scientist to show that the radioactive substance emitted from thorium was a gas with a molecular weight of 40 to 100, a discovery crucial to the determination that the elements undergo some transmutation in radioactive decay. During her brief research career, she carried out pioneering studies of radon and actinium. Probably the most crucial contribution made by Brooks to modern physics was her identification of the multiple decays that take place in sequence starting with radium, uranium and thorium. Much more than a promising young researcher, Brooks had the potential to be another Madame Curie.


Rayner-Canham, Marelene F., and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham. "Harriet Brooks—Pioneer nuclear scientist," in American Journal of Physics. Vol. 57, no. 10. October 1989, pp. 899–902.

——. Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Physicist. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.

——. "Pioneer women in nuclear science," in American Journal of Physics. Vol. 58, no. 11. November 1990, pp. 1036–1043.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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