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
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. Thi
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
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 position
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 Brook
resigned her position, probably
more because of the awkwardnes
of the situation than because of her impending marriage since that had
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
"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. I cannot conceive how women's colleges,
inviting and encouraging women to enter professions can be justly founded or
maintained denying such a principle."
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