Should Harriet Brooks be on a Canadian banknote?

Canadian hundred-dollar bill with photo of Harriet Brooks.

Fig. 1. Proposed $100 Canadian banknote with image of Harriet Brooks3.

Canadian readers of Chem13 News will be aware that it is planned to have a woman’s portrait on the next Canadian $10 banknote and proposals have been invited.1 But which one? Much to our delight, the name of a Canadian woman scientist has been suggested — Harriet Brooks. In fact, Maclean’s, Canada’s national magazine, is championing her case.2 Even before the current commitment, a website offered suggestions of an all-women series of banknote portraits, one of which was Harriet Brooks for the $100 bill.3

We are amazed and delighted by this news. It was our research that brought Brooks’ story to light4 as long-time Chem13 News readers will recall.Subsequently, Brooks was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame and her image was chosen for the cover of the January 2015 issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics.6

So why do we consider her to be an excellent nominee for the honour of appearing on a Canadian banknote? Of course, we want a Canadian woman scientist on a banknote! But Brooks was very special. First, she was a true pioneer. Let us give a very brief and simplified account of her life and work.

Brooks was born in Ontario in 1876 and received her undergraduate education through Victoria College (the women’s campus) of McGill University. At the time that she graduated with honours in mathematics and science, the world-famous scientist, Ernest Rutherford had just arrived. He took Brooks on as a research student. Brooks was the only woman in the entire Physics Department. Rutherford was studying radioactivity and concluded that solid particles or a vapour of a solid was being released. It was Brooks who, in 1901, identified it as a gas, what we now call radon.

Cover of a book with title ‘Harriet Brooks’ Pioneer Nuclear Scientist and photo of people.

Fig. 2. The cover of our book4 showing Brooks, the only woman of the McGill University Physics Department, back left.


She made other contributions to the study of radioactivity, but people can readily relate to the radon discovery in the context of today’s concerns about radon gas build up within dwellings.

Yet even since our work, the discovery of radon has been mis-attributed solely to Rutherford7 and we had to point this out.8 The generic mis-attribution of a discovery by a woman to a more famous male name is known as the Matilda Effect.

Cover of a journal with a woman with the title ‘Canadian Journal of Physics’.

Fig. 3. The cover of the January 2015 issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics.6

For a brief period, Brooks taught at Barnard College, an all-women’s college in New York State. While there, she became engaged to be married. When she informed the Dean, the Dean demanded her resignation. Brooks wrote a stirring response which has become the iconic quote associated with her name:

I think it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries.Brooks subsequently broke off the engagement.

In addition to working with Rutherford, Brooks also travelled to England to undertake research with J.J. Thomson at the University of Cambridge and to France, with Marie Curie. Brooks was offered a Fellowship to resume research with Rutherford, who was by then at Manchester University, England. Being aware that, at the time, there was no possibility of advancement for a woman scientist, she decided to marry her former laboratory instructor at McGill, Frank Pitcher, who had been pursuing her for decades. She returned to Montreal, married and had three children, dying at the young age of 56, almost certainly as a result of exposure to many years of radiation.

Brooks gained fame for her discoveries in the field of radioactivity at a time when she was the only Canadian woman in the field. Rutherford commented that she was the most talented woman researcher apart from Marie Curie. She spoke up for the right of a woman to pursue a career after marriage, yet she herself had to choose marriage because all other doors of advancement were closed to her. For such important research work and her stirring call to the rights of women, we consider Brooks to be well worthy of consideration for this recognition.

Editor’s note

On April 15, the call from the public for their nomination of an iconic Canadian woman to be featured on a bank note will have ended. Currently over 100 women have been nominated. These names are listed at the Bank of Canada website. These nominees are Canadian women who have demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field, benefiting the people of Canada, or in the service of Canada. In addition, nominees must have been deceased for at least 25 years.

After the nomination deadline, the Bank of Canada will put together a long list of 10–12 names. We are hopeful that Harriet Brooks will make this “long list” and Canadians can learn more about her contributions to science. An advisory committee will then narrow down the list to five based on historical experts and a formal public opinion survey of a representative sample of Canadians. We are not sure how this representative sample will be selected but let your students know to follow the process in case there is an opportunity to weigh in. Once the short list is decided, the ball is in the court of the Minister of Finance to make a decision. Follow on Twitter at @bankofcanada. And don’t forget to tell your students about pioneering Canadian woman scientist Harriet Brooks, discoverer of radon!


  4. M.F. Rayner-Canham and G.W. Rayner-Canham, Harriet Brooks – Pioneer Nuclear Scientist, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1992.
  5. M.F. Rayner-Canham and G.W. Rayner-Canham, “Harriet Brooks: The Story Behind the Story,” Chem 13 News, 8-11 (February 2002) and Phys 13 News, 4-7, Fall 2001.
  7. J.L. Marshall and V.R. Marshall, “Ernest Rutherford, the ‘True Discoverer’ of Radon”, Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, 28(2), 76-83, 2003.
  8. M.F. Rayner-Canham and G.W. Rayner-Canham, “Rutherford, the ‘True Discoverer of Radon’”. Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, 29(2), 89-90, 2004.

This quote from March 1968, Chem 13 News, gives advice on the implementation of the new Chem Study Programme.

“… a laboratory assistant will greatly reduce the heavy workload of the teacher. Married women who have had either a training as commercial laboratory technician or a university science background generally make satisfactory assistants.”