Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist


168 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0881-3
DDC 539.7'092




Reviewed by Hannah Gay

Hannah Gay is a history professor at Simon Fraser University.


Ernest Rutherford, in an obituary, wrote of his first graduate student,
Harriet Brooks, that “[she] was well known in the years 1901–1905
for her original contributions to the then youthful science of
radioactivity.” But why for only five years? The Rayner-Canhams answer
this question by showing the career problems a woman scientist of
Brooks’s generation faced, and in doing so bring an important, but
forgotten, career to light.

Brooks was a brilliant student who received an M.A. in physics from
McGill in 1901. She avoided the relatively greater obscurity that
awaited her female colleagues by working with Rutherford at McGill and
by teaching at Royal Victoria College. Later she went to the Cavendish
Laboratory in Cambridge with a view to working toward a Ph.D. While in
Europe she collaborated with both J.J. Thomson and Marie Curie. In a
shift that suggests how hostile the climate must have been to women in
science, this confident student became a self-deprecating young woman.
She wrote to Rutherford, “I am afraid I am a terrible bungler in
research work. . . . I think I shall have to give it up after this

After a brief return to McGill, Brooks left for Barnard College, only
to receive further discouragement when the authorities refused to allow
her to marry and keep her job. In the end she did marry, though not the
man of the Barnard years. She did what was acceptable: became a mother,
took a strong but peripheral interest in the affairs of McGill, and
helped her husband’s career. Alas, the science she was discouraged
from pursuing led also to her premature death, from what was probably a
radiation-caused leukemia.

The authors are to be commended for bringing Brooks’s life to light
and for elucidating her scientific achievements. They have given us
another example of a woman who, seemingly eminently suited to a career
in science, was prevented from pursuing it beyond its excellent start by
the unwelcoming professional climate of the early 20th century; in the
late 20th century, the climate is only slightly sunnier.


Rayner-Canham, Marelene F., “Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/12931.