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.

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