Harriet Brooks Pitcher 1876-1933
Harriet Brooks was a pioneering nuclear physicist at a time when it was extremely difficult for women to pursue careers in science. Under the direction of famed physicist Ernest Rutherford at McGill University, she investigated the behaviour of the radioactive element radium. Brooks and her team discovered that it decayed into a new element, which was eventually named "radon". A few years later, she performed experiments which showed that radon transformed in a similar way. This was known as "transmutation of the elements," and laid the foundation for understanding radioactivity and the structure of the atom.
In 1906, while working as a tutor at Barnard College in New York City, Brooks became engaged. At the time, married women resigned their positions both as a matter of course and because of university policy. Although Brooks eventually broke this engagement, she resigned anyway, perhaps defeated by the resistance she faced. She went to Paris to work with Marie Curie. Soon after, she married Frank Pitcher in London, and gave up physics entirely. She died in 1933, likely of leukemia. The dangers of working with radioactive substances were not known at the turn of the century, and pioneering nuclear physicists did not wear protective clothing. Although her career lasted a scant thirteen years, Brooks was able to make fundamental contributions to nuclear physics - a feat rarely matched even in careers that last a lifetime.Back to top