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Publication: Gazette (Montreal), The add link
Issue: 17 April 2017
Title: Woman paid high price for short but brilliant scientific career
Web Link: link

From the archives: Woman paid high price for short but brilliant scientific career

Nuclear physicist Harriet Brooks (shown in 1898) had to forfeit her career and possibly a Nobel Prize when she became Mrs. F. Pitcher.


This story was first published on April 18, 2010, in the Montreal Gazette

?Mrs. F. Pitcher Dies At Residence?

Gazette, Tuesday, April 18, 1933

There was nothing inaccurate about our headline, so far as it went. The wife of Frank Pitcher had indeed died in their home on Queen Mary Rd.

The subsidiary headlines did better ? ?Noted physicist had worked with Thomson, Rutherford and Mme. Curie ? Gained brilliant reputation by scientific discovery? ? though even the subheads could not avoid recording a comparative triviality: ?Greatly interested in horticulture.?

Harriet Brooks, as she was known before she married Pitcher, came of age when it was highly unusual for women to go to university, and rarer still for them subsequently to pursue careers at the highest levels of science and teaching. Brooks did so, but at a terrible cost.

She was born into a family of slender means in Exeter, Ont., in 1876. By 1894 they had fetched up in Montreal, and that same year she enrolled at McGill University. It was a good thing she was bright, for without the scholarships she won it?s unlikely she could have continued.

She graduated in 1898 in mathematics and physics, and was named winner of the Anne Molson medal for math. Several months later, the promising young physicist Ernest Rutherford came to McGill. He needed an assistant to help in his research, recognized Brooks?s promise and took her on. It was a happy choice.

Their work centred on the mysterious radiation given off by radium and uranium. Under Rutherford?s supervision, Brooks focused on a radioactive gas that was also emitted by radium. She determined that it was not simply radium in a different form but radon, another element entirely. For the first time, here was scientific proof that the elements were not immutable but that one could change into another. In a way, the discredited alchemists of old were right after all.

Brooks?s name appeared beside Rutherford?s on a seminal paper published in 1901, and his enthusiastic recommendation helped her win a faculty position at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. Two years later she was back with Rutherford at McGill, where she discovered the so-called recoil of an atom when it emits a particle during radioactive decay.

A 1902-03 fellowship allowed Brooks to study at Cambridge under J.J. Thomson, soon to win the physics Nobel and a noted mentor of younger scientists ? so long as they were men. It was not a happy time for her.

By 1906-07 Brooks was in Paris exploring radioactivity with Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, before moving on to Manchester. Rutherford was there by then and invited Brooks to join him. But someone else was also on his way to Manchester ? Frank Pitcher.

He had fallen in love with Brooks when she was a McGill undergraduate and he a graduate student. (He joined the Montreal Water and Power Co. and eventually rose to chief engineer and general manager.) He was determined that they should marry, and they did so in London in July 1907.

Alas, it put an immediate end to Brooks?s scientific career. Notwithstanding Curie?s success, Brooks seems to have calculated she?d never be offered anything more challenging than a position as a research assistant, such was the prevailing prejudice against women in science. Working with someone like the gifted and generous Rutherford had its attractions, but it wasn?t enough.

Indeed, marrying might well close off even something as modest as research assistant, as she?d already found out. In 1904, while teaching at Barnard College in New York, she became engaged to a physics professor. Barnard was ? and is ? a distinguished liberal arts college for women. But when the administration learned of the engagement, she faced having to choose between marriage and her job. ?The college is not willing to stamp with approval a woman to whom self-elected home duties are secondary,? Brooks was told. She eventually called off the engagement, but then quit Barnard anyway.

She returned from England with Pitcher and stepped into the role expected of her in Montreal. In due course they had three children and, as her Gazette obituary noted, ?her flowers were always one of her greatest delights.?

We can only guess how she pondered what might have been when Rutherford won the chemistry Nobel in 1908, as did his one-time McGill colleague Frederick Soddy in 1921. The prizes recognized their work on the radioactive decay of elements like radium, work in which Brooks had played a significant part.

Her obituary also noted she died ?following a lengthy illness.? Almost certainly it was leukemia, contracted following prolonged exposure to those mysterious elements that so fascinated her but whose dangers were as yet not fully understood.