HarrietBrooks

Harriet Brooks' graduation portrait from McGill University, 1898

Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal
c. 1898
© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


When Harriet Brooks entered McGill, in 1894, women had been welcome at McGill for less than a decade, and it was still unconventional for a woman to pursue a university education. To pursue graduate studies in physics, as Brooks did following her undergraduate degree in 1898, was even more unconventional. In 1901 Brooks earned the first masters degree in physics awarded to a woman at McGill.

During her graduate studies, she worked as a research assistant to Ernest Rutherford, and produced research that Rutherford used (giving due credit to Brooks) in his work that earned a Nobel Prize in 1908. In 1902 she spent a year working with J.J. Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1906, she worked with Marie Curie in Paris. She is quite possibly the only person to have worked with all three of these Nobel laureates.

Working with Rutherford, Brooks set out to characterize an "emanation" from thorium that was quite different from the alpha- and beta-rays commonly observed, in that it could be deviated by a current of air. Brooks concluded that it was a radioactive gas with a molecular weight significantly lower than the molecular weight of the Read More
When Harriet Brooks entered McGill, in 1894, women had been welcome at McGill for less than a decade, and it was still unconventional for a woman to pursue a university education. To pursue graduate studies in physics, as Brooks did following her undergraduate degree in 1898, was even more unconventional. In 1901 Brooks earned the first masters degree in physics awarded to a woman at McGill.

During her graduate studies, she worked as a research assistant to Ernest Rutherford, and produced research that Rutherford used (giving due credit to Brooks) in his work that earned a Nobel Prize in 1908. In 1902 she spent a year working with J.J. Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1906, she worked with Marie Curie in Paris. She is quite possibly the only person to have worked with all three of these Nobel laureates.

Working with Rutherford, Brooks set out to characterize an "emanation" from thorium that was quite different from the alpha- and beta-rays commonly observed, in that it could be deviated by a current of air. Brooks concluded that it was a radioactive gas with a molecular weight significantly lower than the molecular weight of the parent-element, thorium. This result led to Rutherford and Soddy's hypothesis that radioactivity involved a transmutation of one element to another.

Brooks made other significant observations that contributed to the rapidly-developing field of radioactivity, but Brooks was compelled by convention to leave her research career when she married in 1907. She raised her family and lived the rest of her life in Montreal, dying at age 56, of an illness likely related to her exposure to radioactive materials.

© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

DiffusionApparatus

Diffusion apparatus for thorium emanation

Made by Ernest Rutherford, McGill University, Montreal
Rutherford Museum
c. 1900
© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Diagram

Diagram of the apparatus to estimate the molecular weight of thorium emanation. The long cylindrical chamber was divided in two by a sliding metal gate. With the gate closed, thorium emanation filled the left chamber. Then the gate was opened. The time it took for the emanation to diffuse through the chamber (given the kinetic theory of gases) was used to calculate (roughly) the molecular weight of the emanation.

McGill University
http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Heirs/index.html

© 2008, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify and appreciate the way history and culture shape a society’s science and technology
  • Describe scientific and technological developments, past and present, and appreciate their impact on individuals and societies
  • Describe how Canadians have contributed to science and technology on the global stage

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans