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Harriet Brooks


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In his obituary for Brooks, Ernest Rutherford gave the following summary of her contributions to physics:

"Harriet Brooks (Mrs. Frank Pitcher) was well known in the years 1901-5 for her original contributions to the then youthful science of radioactivity. Distinguished graduate of McGill University, she was one of the first research workers with Prof. (now Lord) Rutherford in Montreal. She observed that the decay of the active deposit of radium and actinium depended in a marked way on the time of exposure to the respective emanations and determined the curve of decay for very short exposures. This work, which was done before the transformation theory of radioactive substances was put forward, assisted in unravelling the complex transformations which occur in these deposits. With Rutherford, she determined the rate of diffusion of the radium emanation into air and other gases. These experiments were at the time of much significance, for they showed that the radium emanation diffused like a gas of heavy molecular weight - estimated to be at least 100.

"Miss Brooks entered the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge in 1903 and continued her radioactive investigations. In a letter to Nature of July 21, 1904 (vol. 70, p. 270) she directed attention to a peculiar type of volatility shown by the active deposit of radium immediately after its removal from the emanation. In the light of later results of Hahn and Russ and Markower in 1909, it is clear that the effect was due to the recoil of radium B from the active surface accompanying the expulsion of an alpha-particle from Radium A. This method of the separation of the elements by recoils ultimately proved of much importance in disentangling the complicated series of changes in the radioactive bodies."

-- E. Rutherford, Nature 131: 865 (1933).

Rutherford said Brooks was the most outstanding woman in the field of radioactivity, after Marie Curie. 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. [35 MRC]

Some Important Publications

"The New Gas from Radium," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Ser. 3: 21 (1901) with E. Rutherford

"Comparison of the Radiations from Radioactive Substances," Philosophical Magazine, Ser. 6: 1 (1902) with E. Rutherford

"Volatile Product from Radium," Nature 70: 270 (1904)


European Fellowship from Bryn Mawr College

Elected member, McGill Physical Society


1899-01 Non-resident Tutor, Royal Victoria College (the women's college attached to McGill University)

1903-04 Tutor, Royal Victoria College

1904-06 Tutor in Physics, Barnard College

1906-07 Independent Worker, Curie Institute.


B.S. McGill University, Montreal 1898

M.A. McGill University, Montreal 1901

Newnham College, Cambridge 1902-03

References consulted

[7 MWR1], [35 MRC]

Additional Information/Comments

Brooks was E. Rutherford's first graduate student. (Rutherford was appointed in 1898 professor at McGill University.)

Brooks' M.A. was the first awarded to a woman at McGill University. (McGill did not have a Ph.D. program until 1909.)

Brooks planned to marry in 1906. She was teaching physics in Barnard College, and had to confront the problem that women teaching in women's colleges were obliged to resign their positions when they married. At Barnard the Dean's rule stated that "the College cannot afford to have women on the staff to whom the college work is secondary; the College is not willing to stamp with approval a woman to whom self-elected home duties can be secondary." Margaret Maltby was chair of the Physics Department, and pleaded with the Dean not to force Brooks to resign, but to no avail. Eventually Brooks resigned her position, probably more because of the awkwardness of the situation than because of her impending marriage since that had been canceled.

Having left Barnard, Brooks sailed for Europe and worked in the laboratory of Pierre and Marie Curie. See Rayner-Canham biography [35 MRC] below.

In 1907 she married Frank Pitcher, and did not continue a career in physics. They had three children.

In objection to being asked to resign if she were to marry, Brooks wrote in 1906


Biography of Harriet Brooks by Marlene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal 1992.[35 MRC]

Field Editor: Professor C.W. Wong <cwong@physics.ucla.edu>



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