Harriet Brooks

Small Particles, Big Discoveries

An important contributor to our understanding of radioactivity, Brooks’ discoveries contributed to Nobel-prize winning discoveries as to how radioactivity works, namely that exposure to radiation contaminates non-radioactive substances.

Harriet Brooks was born to a large family, and spent her youth travelling around Ontario and Quebec with them. When they settled in Montreal in 1894, Brooks enrolled at McGill University, which had only begun to admit women six years earlier, and forced women to sit in separate classes from men. She graduated with a BA in Mathematics and Philosophy in 1898.
In 1898, she became the first graduate student to work under Ernest Rutherford, a renowned physicist considered to be the father of nuclear physics whom the university had managed to hire from Cambridge University. Brooks’ research focused on electromagnetism, and she became the first woman in Canada to obtain a graduate degree in that field. She went to Bryn Mawr College in the United States to work on her PhD in physics, and then went to England to work with Rutherford’s mentor, Joseph Thompson.
She returned to McGill in 1903 to resume working with Rutherford. While there, she made a breakthrough the study of radiation. By placing a non-radioactive material in a radioactive chamber, the material would become radioactive. This was an essential element of Rutherford’s theory of radioactivity, which won the Nobel Prize in 1908. Rutherford recognized her as the most important female physicist apart from Marie Curie. She died in 1933, likely from her exposure to radiation while working in the lab.

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