Happy 145th birthday to Harriet Brooks born 2 July in 1876 in Ontario. She’s best remembered today for her research on radon and other radioactive elements.

Harriet Brooks in academic robes (pd)

Brooks studied under Ernest Rutherford at McGill University, J J Thomson at Cambridge, and Marie Curie in Paris. She was among the first to identify radon as an independent element, as a product of the decay of thorium, and characterized the decay processes of thorium and actinum.

She held a faculty position at Barnard College, but was pressured into resigning her post before marrying, due to the sexist assumptions of academic administration at the time. She worked for a time at the Curie Institute after this, but eventually left physics research, one of many women forced out of the field in that era. She later died of leukemia, possibly as a result of her research.

Further Reading:

  • Physics Today: Harriet Brooks

  •  The Canada Science & Technology Museum: Harriet Brooks Pitcher

  •  History of Scientific Women: Harriet Brooks

  •  Women in Their Element, pp. 269-279 (2019)

Harriet Brooks: Radon, A “New Gas” from Radium

Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham

  •  Thesis: Damping of the oscillations in the discharge of a Leyden jar.

Brooks, Harriet; Rutherford, E. (Supervisor)