Sunday, October 11, 2009

Harriet Brooks Pitcher

Harriet Brooks Pitcher was considered one of the Grandmother's of Nuclear Physics, along side Marie Curie. Dubbed the "Discoverer of the Recoil of Radioactive Atom", she spent a scant, yet impressive 13 years in dedication to the study of radium, all under the tutelage and guidance of famed physicist Ernest Rutherford at McGill University.

Harriet Brooks was born in Exeter, Ontario in 1876. She went to McGill University and graduated with a B.A in mathematics and natural philosophy in 1898. She was the first graduate of Ernest Rutheford and worked under him upon graduating. Her focus for her masters degree was on Electricity and Magnetism; a topic she worked closely with Rutheford on. She obtained her masters degree in 1901 - the first ever woman to do so at McGill University.
"Under the direction of famed physicist Ernest Rutherford at McGill University, she investigated the behaviour of the radioactive element radium. Brooks and her team discovered that it decayed into a new element, which was eventually named "radon". A few years later, she performed experiments which showed that radon transformed in a similar way. This was known as "transmutation of the elements," and laid the foundation for understanding radioactivity and the structure of the atom."(...)

During this time, she also did a series of experiments to determine the nature of the radioactive emissions from thorium. This series of studies led to the foundation of what we now know as nuclear science.

For a brief period, she worked as a tutor at Barnard University in New York, USA. It was during this time where she got engaged. It was required at the time that women who got engaged/married to leave their field. The engagement eventually broke down and broke off and Harriet traveled to Paris to work under the guidance of Marie Curie. However, it was soon after this that she met her future husband Frank Pitcher in London, and gave up physics entirely.

She died in 1933. It is speculated she died of leukemia as the effects of radioactivity were unknown then.

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