Canadian Nuclear Physicist Harriet Brooks


Physicists were a rare breed at the turn of the 20th century and women in the nuclear science fields were even more sparse. Harriet Brooks “was the most outstanding woman in the field of radioactivity,” second only to the renowned French scientist Marie Curie, physicist Ernest Rutherford said in his obituary on Brooks’s death in 1933.

Rutherford’s first woman graduate student in nuclear physics at McGill University in Montreal, Brooks rapidly became an expert in nuclear science. Later working with Rutherford, Brooks’ observations “showed that the radium emanation diffused like a gas of heavy molecular weight,” said the Library of UCLA”s entry on “Harriet Brooks”. “He credited her identification of radon as a vital piece of work that led him to propose the theory of the transmutation of one element into another.” The discovery was revolutionary.

Harriet Brooks: A Scientist in the Making

Harriet Brooks was born in 1876 in Ontario. Receiving scholarships, the pretty, fresh-faced young woman studied at McGill University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1898. Three years later, Brooks received a Masters Degree in Electromagnetism from McGill. It was the highest degree available, as there was no PhD program at that time.

Brooks held the honour of the first Canadian woman to earn such advanced degree from the famed university. Employed as a math tutor, Brooks taught women at Royal Victoria College of McGill and continued to investigate advancements in radioactivity with Rutherford.

Married Women not Permitted to Teach at Barnard

Moving to New York City in 1904, Brooks taught physics at Barnard College, the women’s section of Columbia University. There, she became engaged to marry but ran headlong into an immovable wall of university policy: if she married, she would have to quit her job. The university stated that a married woman would hold her work second to her family, and that was just not acceptable. Brooks strongly disagreed and requested change.

“I think it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries,” she argued, noted Aminolla Sabzevari in the article, “Women in Medical Physics” of the Science Creative Quarterly, 2009. The university refused to relinquish their stance. Brooks broke off her engagement for undisclosed reasons, but also left her teaching post at Barnard in 1906.

Labs of Physicists Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford

Madame Marie Curie offered Brooks a position in her Curie Institute laboratory, and for a short time, Brooksworked alongside the prominent woman physicist. Rutherford had left Canada to work in England’s Cavendish Laboratory at that same time. Brooks moved from France to join his research group in Cambridge.

She applied for a research fellowship, but “while she was still waiting for the decision,” said Sabzevari, Brooks “married Frank Pitcher and retired from physics research.” The Pitchers made their home in Montreal, Quebec, and Brooks stayed home to raise a family of three children.

Work of Harriet Brooks Unrecognized

While unrecognized for many of her discoveries, Brooks’s mentor Rutherford was not to blame. He shared professional credit with her on several scientific articles they wrote together. Brooks’ own scientific article, “Volatile Product From Radium,” was published in Nature in 1904. Rutherford made sure to proclaim Brooks’s vital participation in the identification of radon. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist in Chemistry, Rutherford was supportive of women in the sciences, including several women graduate students in his programs. Brooks was an elected member of the Bryn Mawr College “European Fellowship” and an elected member of the McGill Physical Society.

It is thought that leukemia was the cause of death of Harriet Brooks Pitcher in 1933, the illness probably due to working with radioactive substances without a single thread of protection. (The devastating hazards of radioactivity were not yet predicted.) An exceptional and rare woman in early physics, Brooks died at the early age of 57 in 1933. The Canada Museum of Science and Technology stated “although her career lasted a scant thirteen years, [Harriet] was able to make fundamental contributions to nuclear physics – a feat rarely matched even in careers that last a lifetime.”

Imagine the exciting advancements in nuclear physics if the Canadian physicist Harriet Brooks had stayed in her profession.