Reading the life of Harriet Brooks (1876-1933) is like watching the gradual, inevitable unfolding of a horror movie. There’s that same idyllic, promising beginning that suddenly gives way as the heroine puts her hand on the basement door of Ancient Contained Horrors and, no matter how much you shout or plead, proceeds to open it against all common sense.
For Brooks, the monster was marriage, a union that ripped her from an international scientific reputation and stimulating circle of literary and radical friends in order to toss her headlong into the plush dungeon of enforced domesticity. She worked with Rutherford, Thomson, and Curie, was a close friend of Maxim Gorky, and at her life’s end the papers had more to say about her love of gardening and proper wifely contentment than about her five years of cutting edge nuclear science.
We know profoundly little about her life before she entered college in 1894 aside from the fact that her father was an irresolute alcoholic Canadian traveling salesman and her mother was a genius at making do. She and her sister Edith were the standouts of the eight Brooks children, both attending university less than a decade after the first Canadian woman received her college degree.
Harriet attended McGill University, which was in the process of vigorously equipping a lab advanced enough to draw the great Ernest Rutherford away from the Cavendish. Harriet distinguished herself as a student of math and physics and, upon graduation, was offered a spot in Rutherford’s lab.
Within two years, she made a discovery with deep but unsung repercussions for the history of physics. Rutherford had noted that Thorium, left to itself, gave off an unknown radioactive emission and tasked Brooks with finding out more about it. He assumed that it would prove to be just some gaseous form of Thorium, as indeed anybody would during this early dawn of radioactivity research. Brook’s research showed that, quite to the contrary, the emission had an atomic mass much less than that of Thorium and therefore had to be a different element.
It was the first evidence that elements could change their identity through radioactive processes, and the massive change in thinking about the immutability of atoms it produced began the nuclear age in earnest.
Rutherford, conscientious to the marrow in giving credit where it was due, always referred to Brooks as having made the discovery, but it nonetheless remains associated exclusively with Rutherford in popular consciousness. It would not be the last time Recognition vaporized before Brooks.
Over the course of her career, she worked with all the nuclear greats – at the Cavendish with J.J. Thomson, and in Paris with Marie Curie, but her best work was always done in Rutherford’s lab. Where Thomson was alternately aggressive and distracted, and Curie often distant, Rutherford was her lifelong supporter and steady advocate. As a researcher with Rutherford, she discovered the “Recoil Effect” that occurs when atoms that eject an alpha particle during radioactive decay acquire kinetic energy and use it to launch themselves away from their neighbors.
It was a massively significant result that, a few years after Brooks discovered it, would be used to great effect by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner to separate the products of radioactive decay. When Hahn claimed to have discovered the effect, Rutherford wrote him, pointing to Brooks’s previous work. Hahn refused to concede her primacy, a bit of scientific ungraciousness that was a charming warm-up for his later treatment of Meitner.
Her first discovery dwarfed in spite of every good intention by the size of Rutherford’s name, and the second obscured by Hahn’s hunger for prestige, she had yet a third important revelation up her sleeve. Working with thorium, radium, and actinium, she painstakingly charted the products of their decay and found that, not only did they change identity, but they did it multiples times, laying the ground for the decay series that would form such an important part of Twentieth Century nuclear physics.
Her paper announcing these results was published in 1904. In just four years she had contributed three major insights into the nature of radioactivity, a dizzying pace of scientific accomplishment that was brought to a hard stop in 1906.
At that point, she was a respected lecturer and researcher at Barnard College. She met a man, they fell in love, and became engaged. Barnard then curtly informed her that, if she married, she was expected to resign her professorship and abandon her research. Shocked by the demand, Brooks faced the choice of marrying, and giving up her scientific work, or continuing at the cost of love. She broke off the engagement, but the emotional toll was heavy and she requested a year off to piece her life back together.
And what a year that was. She started it by spending some time hanging out at a utopian commune established by Prestonia Mann Martin in the Adirondacks. While there, she met Maxim Gorky, the radical Soviet writer who had been rejected by all good society on account of his irregular romantic situation, and together with his mistress, the unlikely trio traveled through Europe together. It was a free-wheeling, intellectually stimulating existence – totally different than her years of research but totally fulfilling in its unique way and, of course, it too was doomed to an abrupt end.
That End took the form of Frank Henry Pitcher, an engineer of the Montreal Power and Water Company who had been a lecturer at McGill. He decided that he must marry Brooks, regardless of what impact it might have on her ability do all her favorite things. He wrote to her and wrote to her, insisting that she accept him and that a domestic life organizing the activities of household servants would give her infinitely more joy than science, travel, or bracing intellectual company.
She relented, turning down a promising research position that Rutherford had gone to a good deal of trouble to secure for her, and Pitcher promptly left to go mountain hiking for a month, leaving Brooks to plan a wedding she’d been cajoled into accepting and, to add extra insult to her skeptical worldview, he insisted that she arrange it as a religious wedding.
That set the tone for all that followed. He no doubt thought he was being very grand and kind, and was, to judge by his letters, eminently unaware of his persistently condescending treatment of everything Brooks cared about. She was left with nothing to fill her time except overseeing the household staff and joining the local women’s clubs whose basic conservatism was a stark change from the heady intellectualism of her prime years. She went along on the family vacations he planned, watching the kids while he did the things he liked, and the words that everybody who knew her during this time used to describe her are things like, “calm”, “welcoming,” and “quiet.”
And her life just got worse. Of her three children, one died of spinal meningitis, and another disappeared suddenly only to be found two months later, dead in a river.
Brooks lived for twenty six years after her marriage to Pitcher, but it was a withered sort of living that decayed at last to a slow shamble through loss and disappointment. Her whole scientific career spanned but six years, but in that time she was acknowledged as second only to Marie Curie in the study of radioactivity in the lab. At the end, she took her joy in gardening and in correspondence with those who knew her back when she was truly herself while waiting calmly for leukemia to carry her away at last, in 1933.
Lead image: Wikipedia, public domain.
FURTHER READING: In spite of her position as one of Canada’s great women of science, people haven’t exactly fallen over themselves to record her life. The best book is Harriet Brooks: Pioneer Nuclear Scientist (1992) by the great duo of Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham. The Rayner-Canhams wrote several books about women in science, all of them exhaustively and conscientiously researched, and this small book is a charming example of how they worked.