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Harriet Brooks Pitcher

 Harriet Brooks Pitcher was Canada’s first female nuclear physicist. She made significant contributions to the field of radiation but her career was halted early by social pressure. She was prevented from having what may well have become a spectacular career. She collaborated with many important people in her field like Sir Ernest Rutherford, J.J. Thomson, and Marie Curie. The importance of her contributions was not discovered until two generations after her death, almost a century after she originally worked in the field.

Harriet Brooks Pitcher was born on July 2nd 1876 in Exeter, Ontario. The third of eight children, her family was respectable but not overly wealthy. Of her large family, only Harriet and her sister Elizabeth attended university, both having excellent mathematical skills. Harriet entered McGill in 1894, only six years after McGill graduated its first woman.

Brooks was an excellent student and graduated from McGill with an honors B.A. in mathematics and science. That same year, Ernest Rutherford, who was later knighted Sir Ernest Rutherford, moved to McGill and Brooks became his first graduate student and an important member of his research team. She completed her master’s thesis in 1901.

Her research focus shifted to radium, and Lord Rutherford and she co-authored a few publications for the Royal Society’s Transactions and Proceedings as well as in the distinguished Philosophical Magazine. She worked with J.J. Thomson in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University and though she used her time there to do valuable laboratory work, her progress was overlooked as Thomson was too focused on his own endeavours.

She returned to the Royal Victorian College and her place in Sir Rutherford’s research team for two years before moving to Barnard College in 1905, where she began to teach physics. Her life there was uneventful until she became engaged to a physics professor at Columbia University and the Dean protested, telling Harriet that “whenever your marriage does take place, it ought to end your official relationship with the college.” This sparked a heated exchange, as Brooks believed that she had a duty to her profession and her sex to continue her work after marriage. Despite Brooks being supported by the head of Barnard’s physics department, Margaret Maltby, Dean Gill refused to accept this and cited the views of the college’s trustees, which said that you could not be both a married woman and a successful academic. Soon after this argument, the engagement was broken off and Brooks agreed to continue at Barnard.

A year later, she took a trip to Capri, Italy and during this time, made contact with Marie Curie. She could soon to be found in Paris, working as part of Madame Curie’s research staff. Although the work she did during her time there was not published under her name, it was of great value and was cited many times in articles published by the Curie Institute.

For reasons unknown to the public, she terminated her research career and married Frank Pitcher in 1907, giving birth to three children in the subsequent years. She remained active in organizations of university women, but seemed to lose all interest in physics. She died on April 17, 1933, as a result of a lingering illness, probably caused by years of exposure to radiation. Lord Rutherford wrote a glowing obituary, describing the many exploits of his former research colleague.

It was not until the 1980s that the importance of Harriet Brooks Pitcher’s research was truly recognized for what it was: the foundation of modern nuclear science. She was the first scientist to show that the radioactive substance that came from thorium was a gas. During her brief career, she also carried out vital studies on elements like radon and actinium. However, her most important contribution was her identification of the multiple decays that take place in sequences starting with radium, uranium and thorium. Harriet Brooks Pitcher was recognised as far more than a skilled researcher and many believed that, should she have continued her career, she could have become as influential as Madame Curie.


Image source: Wm. Notman & Son. © McCord Museum. Taken from

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