Written by MLT for SCH4U Correspondence, April 2013
Harriet Brooks was born in Exeter, Ontario in 1876. She graduated from McGill University in Montreal with a B.A. in mathematics and natural philosophy (considered to be a precursor science to modern physics) in 1898. Three years later, she earned one of the first Master’s degrees of the university based on her work on electricity and magnetism. For her degree she worked under Ernest Rutherford, one of the most prominent physicists of all time. She was his first graduate student. When he discovered her intent to marry another physicist, her university’s dean tried to force her to resign saying, “the good of the College and the dignity of the woman’s place in the home demand that your marriage shall be a resignation.” She broke off the engagement and resigned from her position. She found another in her field but this was short lived as she married within the year to a man named Frank Pitcher and gave up her career for good. She lived the rest of her life in Montreal until 1933 when she died of a blood disease, which was likely leukemia. She was 56.
Her most vital work revolved around the behavior of radium. Their team discovered that the element actually decayed into a new element which was eventually named radon. She performed experiments later on that showed that radon transformed in a similar way. This was known as the transmutation of the elements.
The importance of this lies in how she was a pioneer in the understanding of radioactivity which at the time she called emanations. Her ideas and work led to a hypothesis formed by Rutherford and his colleague Frederick Soddy stating that radioactivity results from the disintegration of atoms. This was the beginning of a new understanding of the atom.