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Harriet Brooks: A Woman of Science

For the week of Monday April 16, 2012

On April 17, 1933, Harriet Brooks died. She was an important scientist whose work resulted in significant advances in the field of nuclear physics. Ernest Rutherford, her life-long mentor, compared her to Marie Curie.

Harriet Brooks was born on July 2, 1876, in Ontario. She graduated from Seaforth Collegiate Institute and enrolled in the science program at McGill University. This took courage since the university had awarded its first degree to a woman only six years earlier. Harriet received excellent marks, and when she finished her degree, she joined the research group headed by Ernest Rutherford, who would be awarded a Novel Prize a few years later. Harriet was the first woman to obtain a Master of Physics at McGill University. With encouragement from Ernest Rutherford, Harriet started studying radioactivity.

Harriet Brooks
© McCord Museum/ Wm. Notman & Son / II-123880, 1898

She identified the rays (later called alpha particles) emanating from a radioactive substance, thorium, which enabled her to eventually confirm that one element was in fact transformed into another. Her major discoveries involving radioactivity led to the “transmutation of elements” theory, which contradicted traditional Newtonian theories and laid new groundwork for the study of nuclear physics. In 1901, she continued with her studies at Bryn Mawr, a college for women in Pennsylvania. She then worked with J. J. Thompson at Cambridge, and with Rutherford at McGill.

In 1904, she left McGill to teach at a women’s college in New York. In the summer of 1906, she received a wedding proposal, and was forced to decide between starting a family or continuing her brilliant career because, at that time, women balancing the two were frowned upon. She decided to continue her work on radioactivity with Marie Curie.

Ernest Rutherford
© Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division Washington / George Grantham Bain / LC-B2- 6101-9

Harriet did marry in 1907, but that ended her carreer. From that point on, she devoted herself to her family and was active in philanthropic endeavours. Harriet Brooks died at 56, probably from leukemia, a common illness among scientists at that time who worked with radiation without protection.

Harriet Brooks’ life serves as a good example of the problems women faced while working in unconventional professions. However, despite these problems and her short career, she made major discoveries which contributed to advancements in nuclear physics.

Harriet Brooks was designated a National Historic Person in 2005 for her pioneering work in the study of radioactivity and for being one of the first women to leave a mark in the field of scientific research. Ernest Rutherford was also designated a National Historic Person for his contribution to science.

To read more about Ernest Rutherford, see “All Science is Either Physics or Stamp Collecting” in the Archives of This Week in History.

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