Monday, April 23, 2018

Beatrice "Trixie" Worsley - World's First Computer Science Doctorate

Trixie Worsley, linocut 11" x 14" by Ele Willoughby, 2018

It's interesting how Trixie Worsley, who is believed to have earned the very first doctorate in computer science, supervised by Douglas Hartree and Alan Turing at Cambridge, is often identified as "the first woman in the world to earn a doctorate in computer science" as if the idea that she was the first person to do this had not even occurred writers. She was a woman, so she must be the "first woman," and an imaginary innovative prior man is implied. Amongst the first computer scientists in Canada, she was certainly the first woman in the field here. She focused on writing software, development of computer libraries, scientific computation and was co-author of the first compiler Transcode (vital to physicists) as well as teaching in the new field of computer science. Her work provides insight into the history of the nascent field of computer science. She published her computational insights and solutions for problems in physics, biology and computer science.

Beatrice Helen Worsley (1921-1972), a quiet and accommodating girl known as Trixie, was born in Queretaro, Mexico, to English parents who had moved to Mexico so her father could work in her mother's family's textile mill. This mill had been destroyed by rebels in 1917, and Trixie's future parents had had to move again so her father could instead work for Rio Grande group’s CIMSA mills. Trixie's mother home-schooled her and her older brother, and the family remained cut off from the local community for safety during this turbulent time in Mexico's history. In 1929, the family moved to Toronto, mainly for the sake of the children's education. Trixie attended Brown public school for a few years before going to the private Bishop Strachan School, where as the top student of her day, she excelled in the university track classes. She graduated with honours in 1939, winning awards for math and science and the Governor General's Award for the highest grades in the school. She entered Trinity College at the University of Toronto with both a general proficiency entrance award and the Burnside Scholarship in Science. Getting top marks in most of her classes she won more scholarships and transferred to Math and Physics in 1940, specializing in applied math. She first saw computers during a summer job in the actuarial department of the Manufacturers Life Insurance Company in Toronto in 1942.

As soon as she completed her bachelor's in mathematics at the University of Toronto in 1944, she enlisted in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, known as the Wrens. As a researcher at the Naval Research Establishment at Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Establishment Stradacona, in Halifax, NS, she focused on harbour defence. Worsley was one of 6 Wrens amongst 50 scientists, officers and support staff, who were responsible for things like degaussing ships to limit their magnetic signature and vulnerability to German magnetic mines, torpedo guidance and researching different techniques for harbour defence. Most of this group left the service within a year of the end of the war to pursue further education, with the special opportunities offered to veterans. A small number including Worsley, the only remaining Wren, stayed on. The newly promoted Lieutenant Worsley began researching the badly understood electrochemistry of hull corrosion in 1945, performing experiments at sea. She set the Wrens' record for time at sea, at 150 days, including during the rough mid-winter months. Her endurance and knowledge earned her the respect of the crews, even doing what she called a man's job. She demobilized in 1946 to pursue further education.

She went to MIT for a master's in math and physics with Henry Wallman, at the Radiation Laboratory, where she was exposed to computers and wrote a thesis called Mathematical Survey of Computing Devices with an Appendix on Error Analysis of Differential Analyzers. There were only really a handful of computers out there at the time, in universities, industry and national labs and she surveyed the literature on all of them as well as those planned, and began to be an expert on this new technology and to wish for a future in the field.

Returning to Canada in 1947, where there were not yet any available jobs in computers, she worked at the National Research Council (NRC) in Ottawa as an aerodynamics research officer in the mechanical engineering division, but it didn't hold her interest. She managed to negotiate a move to the new University of Toronto Computation Centre - the only existing Canadian computer R&D program - as one of two project assistants in 1948 (hired for $200 month). She and her colleagues worked on tabulating results for Atomic Energy Canada (AEC) in Chalk River. Worsley used Mechanno to build her own differential analyzer with small improvements on the design published by Douglas Hartree and Arthur Porter in 1935. This was a cheap device, one of about 15 ever built worldwide, that was accurate enough to solve many scientific problems. Worsley and the other project assistant were sent to Cambridge to learn about EDSAC at the Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory in 1949. Worsley co-wrote the first program to run on EDSAC and her report on the machine's first run was published in the proceedings of a meeting on high-speed computing at Cambridge that June. She didn't return to Canada because she started her doctorate at Newnham College, with Douglas Hartree as supervisor (with Alan Turing and Maurice Wilkes). She returned to Canada before completing her dissertation but math professor Byron A. Griffith agreed to supervisor her till she completed her work. Hartree approved her thesis, Serial Programming for Real and Idealized Digital Calculating Machines, and she was awarded a PhD in 1952 and then published her first scientific paper. Hers is believed to be the first doctorate awarded involving modern computers.

The FERUT computer from the Univerisyt of Toronto Archives
Meanwhile, the ambitious (and expensive) design and construction project of Canada’s first computer, the University of Toronto Electronic Computer Mark I (UTEC) was underway, aiming to produce a nationally-shared university, government and military resource. Plagued by mechanical problems and tube failure, the head of the AEC argued that funding should be withdrawn and moved to purchasing a completed system, the Ferranti Mark I in 1952. Worsley herself named the machine FERUT for “Ferranti computer at the University of Toronto,” and operated the new machine, creating software for everything from problems in atomic physics to the St. Lawrence Seaway calculations. With her colleague Gottlieb she taught courses on its use, but it was notoriously difficult and almost all their students quit. Worsley then worked with physics professor J.N. Patterson Hume, to write a compiler called Transcode, to make higher-order programming possible - a much easier method, if slower to execute. Allowing users to program in a language, rather than machine code, and enter numbers in decimal, rather than binary, hugely simplifier their task and had a huge impact on computing in Canada. It allowed dozens of research groups nationwide to use FERUT to solve a wide-array of scientific problems. Transcode was an immediate success and hundreds of people learned it before the FERUT was replaced with an IBM 650 in 1958. Despite her education, publications and teaching track-record, Worsley was repeatedly passed over for promotion and received less recognition than her (male) peers. She was only promoted from Computation Centre mathematician to assistant professor of physics in 1960. Worsley published more papers than any of the other staff of the Computation Centre in the 1960s as her career veered towards teaching. She was promoted to associate professor of physics and computer science when U of T started a graduate department of computer science in 1965.

She left U of T in 1965 to join Queen's University Computing Centre in Kingston, Ontario, likely influenced by her slow career advancement and treatment as a woman researcher at U of T. It caught her colleagues by surprise as she was moving to a University without a computer science program, only an outdated IBM 1620 and would be computing advisor to the Computing Centre with teaching duties, but not a professor. But, she was lured there to start the new Computing Centre and start anew. A new department of Computing and Information Science was created in 1968 complete with master's program thanks largely to Worsley's efforts and she was promoted to associate professor. In 1971 she took a sabbatical at the Department of Applied Analysis and Computer Science at the University of Waterloo to study assembler coding and computer architecture, but she had a fatal heart attack at age 50 on May 8, 1972.

After her untimely death, Worsley left her entire estate to Cambridge University to set up the Lundgren Fund, in honour of Helge Lundgren, for doctoral math or science students with preference to those in computer science "whose research has been interrupted by national service or personal misfortune." Scott M. Campbell who wrote the great biography of Worsley for the IEEE has been unable to identify this Helge Lundgren, though he suspects this might be tied to whatever it was that drew Worsley suddenly back to Canada before she had finished her doctorate.

Her report on the first run of the EDSAC was included in Brian Randell's classic 1973 book, The Origins of Digital Computers, leading to posthumous fame in the history of computer science. The Canadian Association of Computer Science / Association d'Informatique Canadienne (CACS/AIC) honoured her with a lifetime achievement award in 2015, alongside her former colleagues Hume and Gottlieb. A second Canadian woman supervised by Douglas Hartree at Cambridge, professor emerita of Vanderbilt University Charlotte Froese Fischer established a U of T computer science graduate scholarship in Worsley’s name, for doctoral candidates who have taken an active role in promoting women in the field of computer science. Froese Fischer met Worsley when they both worked in the Computing Centre and remembers her insights, wry humour and "way of expressing herself in a few memorable words.”

I was surprised how much of Trixie's career I could relate to directly. I've spent much more than 150 days doing research at sea, but never (in the Northern Hemisphere) later than a fairly miserable, snowy October. I have a pretty good sense of what it would have been like on the North Atlantic in the mid-winter. Her work as a WREN was on electrochemistry of hull corrosion. As someone who has done marine electromagnetics, I know this is still an active research topic for my naval colleagues. Her doctoral thesis included a great variety of problems, but one, the calculation of second-order corrections to the value of gravity from pendulum measurements at sea is something I know about as my own doctorate involved adapting a gravimeter to use at sea. I've shown Trixie based on a photo of her seated in front of the FERUT, and other images of the machine. I was influenced by my former colleague at U of T Physics, Gordon West's descriptions of the first computers they used and peering directly into the memory of the machine themselves through its output oscilloscopes. MIT makes her master's thesis available, so I looked it up but ended up opting to try and allude to her career as a programmer (rather than a hardware researcher) by reproducing the structure of a flow chart from one of her papers about computation methods in atomic physics.

Nina Haikara, 'Honouring Canada's first female computer scientist: U of T's Trixie Worsley,' U of T news, May 26, 2015

Scott M. Campbell, "Beatrice Helen Worsley: Canada's Female Computer Pioneer," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, volume 25, no. 4 (Oct-Dec 2003), p.51--62.

Beatrice H. Worsley, 'The Self-Consistent Field with Exchange for Neon by FERUT Program,' Can. J. Physics, Vol. 36, 1958

Beatrice Worsley, The Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed April 20, 1018

Smillie, Keith (2002). "Beatrice (Trixie) Worsley". The Computer and Me - A Restrospective Look at Some Computers and Languages.

Beatrice H. (Trixie) Worsley | CS-CAN | INFO-CAN, accessed April 20, 2018

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Irene Ayako Uchida, geneticist and Down syndrome research, linked chromosomal anomalies and maternal radiation

Irene Ayako Uchida, Linocut, 9.25" x 12.5", 2018 by Ele Willoughby
My linocut portrait of Canadian geneticist Irene Ayako Uchida (1917-2013) is hand printed on 9.25" x 12.5" Japanese kozo (or mulberry) paper. Uchida is shown surrounded by chromosones, with anomalies (shown with pink arrows) due to radiation exposure, based on one of her research papers. A strand of DNA is hidden in the image (as her watchband).

Irene Uchida didn’t set out to be a scientist. She was studying English literature at UBC, before she was interned with other Canadians of Japanese heritage during WWII. Born to Japanese immigrant parents in Vancouver in 1917, young Ayako Uchida was dubbed "Irene" by her piano teacher who struggled to pronounce her name, which means "splendid" in Japanese. Her father owned two Japanese bookstores in Vancouver and young Ayako loved reading and music, playing organ, piano and violin for the United Church. She faced tragedy in her youth, first when her best friend Marion Gross was killed in a traffic accident; she wore her ring for the rest of her life. Then her sister Sachi died of tuberculosis, even after her mother brought her to Japan where she felt she would receive better medical care. These tragic experiences left Irene with a desire to help people. While at UBC, she was a reporter for weekly Japanese-Canadian newspaper The New Canadian, and was active in the group Japanese Canadian Citizens for Democracy. In 1940 she and her sister Kazuko went to Japan to visit her mother and sister Junko who were living there. She chose to leave via what proved to be the last ship to Canada out of Yokohama before the outbreak of war. Her mother and sisters were trapped in a bleak Tokyo with shortages and war rationing and remained there for years. She, her father, brother, sister-in-law and their kids were all placed in internment camps in the Rockies in the BC interior, initially together at Christina Lake. Because of her university education, her friend Hide Hyodo, Supervisor for Education for the internment camps, asked for her help. She moved to the nearby Lemon Creek camp, where she set up a school for 500 children and became its dedicated principal, turning her own shack into a library where students could study. Ariving in winter, their first task to avoid freezing to death was to patch gaps where snow and wind breached building walls.

After the war, the United Church gave her the opportunity to complete her degree at the University of Toronto. It's worth noting that after the war and until 1949, the only Japanese Canadians allowed back in Toronto were university students. Overt racism in the post-war years was not rare. Her father had returned to Japan with the repatriation program in exchange for Allied prisoners of war. Her family's bookstores and other assets had been seized and she had nothing left for her in British Columbia. She made money washing dishes and sewing in a factory on Spadina, when not in class. She apparently made enemies in her fellow seamstresses who complained she made them look bad by sewing a zipper into a woman’s skirt faster than anyone, and she was fired. She completed her BA at U of T in 1946. She planned to pursue a master's in social work but zoology professor, and soon to be director of the Department of Genetics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Dr. Norma Ford Walker recognized her talent in an introductory genetics class and recruited her for grad school. Uchida took all her other introductory science courses while in graduate school and got her doctorate in zoology in 1951! She began her research career at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto with Dr. Walker, studying twins with genetic diseases including congenital heart disease and Down syndrome. They set up one of the largest twin registries in North America, and working with pediatricians, Irene developed such good relations with the twin subjects that they gladly participated in all her studies and volunteered for others. She stayed there until 1959.

She spent a year working on Drosophila chromosomes with Dr. Klaus Patau (who later discovered the Patau syndrome, caused by trisomy 13 or extra genetic material from chromosome 13 in some or all cells, another example of nondisjunction like Down syndrome) at the University of Wisconsin. While there, Uchida learned that French researchers had linked Down syndrome to an excess chromosome (trisomy 21) - the first time a chromosome anomaly was shown as the cause of a human disorder. She decided to find out why people had this excess chromosome. Her work attracted the attention of Harry Medovy, a pediatrician at the Winnipeg Children's Hospital, who hired her.

She brought the skills honed studying fruitfly chromosomes to Canadian hospitals when she started the first cytology department in the country, and running it for 9 years. She found extra chromosomes in babies who had birth defects. Diagnosing trisomy by actually looking directly at chromosomes in cells was a very new technique and she was the first to do this in Canada. Most importantly she made scientific history when she traced chromosomal anomalies in offspring to mothers’ prior exposure to abdominal x-rays. She compared a large number of children born to mothers before they had received diagnostic radiation to those conceived afterwards, and saw much more trisomy in those conceived afterwards. While this did not make her popular with radiologists, her research helped prevent life threatening or altering birth defects, and made her an internationally recognized geneticist. She was also amongst the scientists who discovered that the mother's genetic material was not always reponsible for a baby with Down syndrome and that one quarter of births can be linked to the father. Since the occurance of Down syndrome goes up with maternal age, it had been assumed it was linked solely to mothers.

She received a 1969 Medical Research Council grant to work as a visiting scientist at the University of London and in Harwell, England, to study a technique for analyzing the chromosomes of mouse eggs and sperm, again looking at the effects of radiation. Afterwards she was lured to McMaster University in Hamilton to work as a professor and Cytology lab director. She stayed there for 22 years, working closely with Dr. Viola Freeman, and continuing her research on the link between radiation and chromosonal anomalies, travelling around Ontario to gather samples from Down syndrome child patients and their parents. She also started a Genetic Counselling Program at the McMaster Medical Centre. Her last job was Director of Cytogenetics at the Oshawa General Hospital, 1991–1995. Since one of the X chromosomes is always naturally deactivated in female embryos, Uchida hoped that one day geneticists will learn to deactivate one of the chromosomes in an individual with trisomy (at 21, 13 or 18) and be able to cure them at an early embryonic stage; this sort of research is only just starting, decades after her hopeful prediction.

She was a world expert in Down syndrome, President of the American Society of Human Genetics, served on the Science Council of Canada, received honourary degrees from McMaster and Western universities, was named Woman of the Century 1867-1967 by the National Council of Jewish Women, in Manitoba, an Officer of the Order of Canada, had a lifelong love of language and grammar, and a wry sense of humour. Not a fan of public speaking to large groups of peers, she never turned down a chance to speak with children. She was a dedicated if exacting teacher and mentor to many graduate students and post-docs. She did not have a family of her own but was generous with her neices, often taking them along on international travel. She was one of the people who fought tirelessly for reparations the 20,000 Japanese-Canadian internees, finally granted four decades later in 1988 when each of the survivors received $21,000 and reinstatement of Canadian citizenship if they had been deported. She donated $50,000 to the Winnipeg hospital for a biannual genetics lecture. She was fun if brusque, opinionated though humble, described as feisty and was known as a gracious hostest who believed the only drink worth having was a Glenfiddich single malt with one ice cube, and a truly extraordinary individual.

Irene Uchida, Wikipedia, accessed April 17, 2018
Irene Ayako Uchida - Genetics: World Famous Down Syndrome Researcher, article accessed April 17, 2018
Terry Watada, "Irene Uchida: Seeing the Truly Wonderful", Toronto NAJC
Terry Watada, "Irene Uchida: Seeing the Truly Wonderful", The Bulletin, August 30, 2013
I A Uchida, C P Lee, and E M Byrnes, Chromosome aberrations induced in vitro by low doses of radiation: nondisjunction in lymphocytes of young adults., Am J Hum Genet. 1975 May; 27(3): 419–429.
Olesia Plokhii, 'Irene Uchida, world-renowned leader in genetics research', Globe and Mail, Published September 13, 2013, Updated March 26, 2017
Ronald G. Davidson, Irene A. Uchida, 1917–2013, Journal List, Am J Hum Genetv.93(4); 2013 Oct 3PMC3791260
'Irene Uchida: World-class scientist was known for her enthusiasm,' Network, McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences Newsmagazine — Volume 8, Issue 1, Fall 2014
Daniel Nolan, "Passages: Renowned geneticist began from scratch after internment - Dr. Irene Ayako Uchida — April 8, 1917 to July 30, 2013", Hamilton Spectator, Sep 08, 2013

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Dr. Maud Menten, pioneer of enzyme kinetics, histochemistry, electrophoresis, adventurer and artist

Maud Menten, linocut 9.25" x 12.5" by Ele Willoughby, 2018
Canadian medical researcher Maud Menten (1870-1960) has been called the "grandmother of biochemistry" and "a radical feminist 1920s flapper," and a "petite dynamo." Not only was she an author of Michaelis-Menten equation for enzyme kinetics (like the plot in indigo in my portrait), she invented the azo-dye coupling for alkaline phosphatase, the first example of enzyme histochemistry,  still used in histochemistry imaging of tissues today (which inspired the histology background of the portrait), and she also performed the first electrophoretic separation of blood haemoglobin in 1944!

Born in Port Lambton, Ontario, she studied at the University of Toronto, earning her bachelor's in 1904, and then graduated from medical school (M.B., bachelor's of medicine) in 1907. She published her first paper with Archibald Macallum, the Professor of Physiology at U of T (who went on to set up the National Research Council of Canada), on the distribution of chloride ions in nerve cells in 1906. She worked a year at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where along with Simon Flexner, first director of the Institute, she co-authored a book on radium bromide and cancer, the first publication produced by the Institute - barely 10 years after Marie Curie had discovered radium. She completed the first of two fellowships at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University), then she earned a doctorate in medical research in 1911 at U of T. She was one of the first Canadian women to earn such an advanced medical degree.* She then moved to Berlin (travelling by boat, unfazed by the recent sinking of the Titanic) to work with Leonor Michaelis. Together they looked at enzyme-catalyzed reactions, found they occured at a rate proportional to the amount of the enzyme-substrate complex, and developed their famous equation for rate as a function of substrate. This work was critical to understanding how enzymes work and helped scientists develop means of blocking enzyme reactions (such as drugs like statins which inhibit enzymes which make cholesterol).

She returned to North America and studied cancer from 1913 to 1914 in laboratory of the great surgeon George W. Crile at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University), in Cleveland. She completed a second doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Chicago in 1916. She was unable to find any good research opportunities for women in Canada at the time, so in 1923 she joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh as a demonstrator in pathology and also served as a clinical pathologist at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. She held three positions at Children's Hospital involved: surgical pathologist, post-mortem pathologist, and haematologist. Despite holding these multiple demanding jobs she authored more than 100 papers. She discovered the utility of immunization of animals against infectious diseases. In 1944 she was the first to use electric fields to separate different proteins in a mixture based on size - a method called electrophoresis - to separate blood haemoglobin. Her wartime paper received far less attention than later work by Linus Pauling, to the point that this discovery is commonly misattributed to Pauling. Here is yet another example of the Matilda effect, where accomplishments of women in science are often forgotten and attributed to more famous men. This method remains a mainstay of lab techniques for biological systems. She characterised bacterial toxins from B. paratyphosus, Streptococcus scarlatina and Salmonella ssp. then successfully used in an immunisation program against scarlet fever in Pittsburgh during the 30's and 40's. Her research focused on pathology, nucleic acids, tumour cells, scarlet fever, bacterial toxins, and pneumonia. She was known as an outstanding hospital pathologist and teacher, who insisted on excellence in research and who had great compassion for the sick. In due course she was promoted to assistant professor (1923),  and associate professor (1925), but did not reach the rank of full professor until 1949 when she was 70, one year prior to retirement. She had retained her Canadian citizenship throughout her time abroad and on retirement promptly moved home to Canada, joined the British Columbia Medical Research Institute and worked three more years, as long as her health would allow. Arthritis forced her second retirement at 75 and she died at 81 in Leamington, Ontario, a 100 km from ber birthplace.

A painting by Maud Menten
Menten never married or had a family, as mothers were usually prohibited from research, but when not revolutionizing biochemistry and medicine she lead a very full life. She was notorious for driving her Model T Ford badly through the University of Pittsburgh campus from 1918 to 1950. She played the clarinet. She mastered six languages including Russian, French, German, Italian, and Halkomelem of the indigenous Coast Salish, which she learned from school friends during her teens in Harrison Mills, British Columbia, where her father was a ferry boat captain. She was a mountain climber and once went on an Arctic expedition. She was an avid amateur astronomer. I am most charmed that she is yet another example of a scientist who was also an artist. She was a talented oil painter, painting colourful and detailed landscapes, still-life works and florals and she exhibited her paintings.

The University of Pittsburgh, so slow to promote her to full professor, now has a yearly lecture and professorship named in her honour. In 1998 she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and has been honoured by a memorial plaque at the University of Toronto.  Her obituary in Nature, by Aaron H. Stock and Anna-Mary Carpenter states, "Menten was untiring in her efforts on behalf of sick children. She was an inspiring teacher who stimulated medical students, resident physicians and research associates to their best efforts. She will long be remembered by her associates for her keen mind, for a certain dignity of manner, for unobtrusive modesty, for her wit, and above all for her enthusiasm for research." It is astonishing that she is not a household name as her tremendous accompliments are still central to research today.

*There is some confusion about which degrees she earned, likely because the 1911 Doctor of Medicine degree (M.D.) - equivalent to today's PhD in medicine, was renamed a few years later when a first degree (previously a Bachelor's of Medicine or B.M.) in medicine became an M.D. degree. One source claims she earned three PhDs: in medicine, pathology and biochemistry.


'A Moment in Canadian History' on the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame website, Dr. Maud Menten accessed April 12, 2018

'The Mystery of Maud Menten' on Laurence A. Moran's blog "Sandwalk: Strolling with a skeptical biochemist" accessed April 12, 2018

'Leonor Michaelis and Maud Leonora Menten', Science History Institude, accessed April 12, 2018

Nicolle Hodges, 'Maud Menten: Science Rules', Montecristo Magazine, accessed April 12, 2018

Maud Menten, Wikipedia, accessed April 12, 2018

Tonny Huang, 'Canadian Pioneers in Science: Maud Menten,' June 29, 2017

Rebecca Skloot, 'Pediatric Pathology - Some Called Her Miss Menten' from PITTMED, October 2000, Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, accessed April 18, 2018

'Pediatric Pathology - About Maud L. Menten, MD, PhD,' Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, accessed April 18, 2018

Kara Rogers, 'Maud Leonora Menten: Canadian biochemist and organic chemist'  Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Last Updated:

'Menten, Maud L.' Encyclopedia of World Biography COPYRIGHT 2004 The Gale Group Inc.

Peter G. Mahaffy, Chemistry, Page 762, 2014 -

Maud L. Menten and George A. McCloskey, 'Histopathology and Etiology of Pneumonia in Children Dying after Antibacterial Therapy' Am J Pathol. 1951 Jun; 27(3): 477–491.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Harriet Brooks, Nuclear Physicist

Harriet Brooks, linocut 9.25" x 12.5" by Ele Willoughby, 2018
When physicists first stumbled upon the phenomenon of radioactivity and shockingly found themselves becoming modern-day alchemists, at the turn of the last century, a promising young Canadian woman made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the nascent field of nuclear physics. Ernest Rutherford (later Lord Rutherford the Nobel laureate) recruited Harriet Brooks (1876 - 1933) while he was working at McGill University in Montreal. Rutherford, now considered one of the giants of early 20th century physics, was a frank New Zealander, known for his dry humour who famously described all of science as either physics or "stamp collecting". I do not imagine he was generous with his compliments, but he stated that Brooks was second only to Marie Curie in her capacity for and understanding of radioactivity. An excellent research physicist, Rutherford was clearly a dedicated and thoughtful supervisor who knew talent when her saw it.

Born July 2, 1876, in Exeter, Ontario, Harriet was one of nine children. Her family was not wealthy and after her father's flour mill burned down and was not covered by insurance, occasionally food was a bit scarce. Only she and her sister Elizabeth, who both had an aptitude for mathematics, attended university. Harriet entered McGill in 1894, only 6 years after the university had admitted its first female student. She graduated in 1898 with a B.A. in mathematics and natural science just as Rutherford arrived from England. He took her on as his first graduate student. He was careful not to assign her a problem in the new and technically difficult field of radioactivity right away, because he felt it was important that young researchers have some appreciated and acknowledged success at the beginning of their carreers, or they might become mistakenly disappointed in their abilities. So after publishing her results in 1899 in the Transactions of the Canadian section of the Royal Society, Harriet completed her master's degree in 1901 on the "Damping of Electrical Oscillations," before embarking on radioactivity research. As a promising researcher, she was appointed a non-resident mathematics tutor for the new women's college Royal Victorian College at McGill in 1899.

Apparatus and schematics of their thorium emanations research, Cabinet B of the Rutherford Museum at McGill

Assigned to on the puzzle of the thorium "emanation" she discovered some of the earliest evidence of transmutation! At that time, physicists knew that some elements gave off alpha particles (which we now know are helium nuclei, two protons and two neutrons bound together), beta particles (which we now know are electrons) and gamma rays, but these "emanations" were different. They knew it might be a radioactive gas, vapour or even a fine powder, but she concluded that it must be a gas of lower atomic weight than thorium - something chemists of the day believed impossible. She co-authored the paper with Rutherford, "The New Gas from Radium" in 1901. This new gas was Radon. She went on to work on measuring the atomic mass of this new gas. Assigning the discovering of a new element to a given individual, especially at this heady time, is tricky, though history is often told much more simply. Some argue that Friedrich Ernst Dorn discovered the element, as he published that Radium compounds emanate a radioactive gas he named Radium Emanation (Ra Em) in 1900. This however, is merely an observation of the existence of a specific isotope of Radon. Rutherford and Brooks themselves credited the Curies for first observing the "emanation".  Today, many credit Rutherford with the "true" discovery of Radon as an element (i.e. a "New Gas"), though he himself was always careful to reference Brooks' work. Between his sole-authored Nature paper of 1901, and his towering reputation, Brooks' role in this discovery was been largely forgotten for decades and only recently, has her role been rediscovered.* While the complete story is messy, a strong case can be made that Harriet Brooks discovered Radon, a new element with a lower atomic mass. It is incontestable that she was amongst the first in the world to observe any form of the element and to attempt to measure its atomic mass.

This 2015 issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics had the cover caption:  Harriet Brooks, pioneering Canadian nuclear physicist, discovered radon in 1901. Her Ph.D. supervisor, Ernest Rutherford, compared her to Marie Curie. On the faculty of Barnard College, she was forced to resign when she became engaged, as marriage was forbidden for female faculty, a great loss to physics (photo courtesy of Wm. Notman & Son; II-123880, McCord Museum).
Brooks proceeded to pursue a doctorate at the famous woman's college Bryn Mawr. She won the President's European Fellowship to go spend 1902-1903 in Cambridge working with (future Nobel laureate) J.J. Thomson. Thomson lacked Rutherford's dedication to guiding young researchers and largely left her on her own. She, like many, especially women, before or since, suffered from impostor syndrome and described herself as "a terrible bungler in research work" in a letter to Rutherford. She wildly underestimated her own skills and accomplishments and was hindered by Thomson's erroneous belief at the the time that radioactivity was a chemical process.** Nontheless, Brooks she made the first measurement of the half-life of Radon (her value: 1 minute, versus the modern value of 55 seconds) while working in Thomson's lab.

Instead of returning to Bryn Mawr to complete her doctorate, she went back to McGill to work with Rutherford for a year. Her biographers Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham suggest this may have due to her loss of confidence. While back at McGill, she noticed what she called the 'volatility' of radioactive substances, and how a non-radioactive plate placed in a radioactive container would become radioactive. She was seeing the first evidence of her discovery of atomic recoil. When the radioactive element emitted an alpha particle in one direction, the daughter nuclei would be propelled in the opposite direction - sometimes with such force that they became embedded in the plate (which hence becomes radioative). This method was later used by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner to separate daugther nuclei and identify new elements. Hahn (who alone was granted the Nobel for the discover of nuclear fission he and Meitner made)*** claimed to have discovered atomic recoil, but Rutherford wrote to him to point out it was in fact Brooks. During this time she also charted the decays of Thorium, Radium, and Actinium and discovered not only did radioactive elements transmutate into new elements, but that these products in turn decayed, laying the groundwork for the discovery of nuclear decay series. She published her results in 1904.

One of the important examples of a nuclear decay series showing how various Uranium isotopes can transmutate in a series of reaction (i.e. to Thorium to Radium to Radon...)

In 1904, she became a physics tutor at Columbia's women's college Barnard College. She met physics professor Bergen Davis, fell in love and they became engaged in 1906. The dean Laura Gill demanded her resignation, insisting she couldn't be both a physicist and a wife. Brooks protested, writing, "I think also 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." The head of physics Margaret Maltby defended Brooks and her tremendous skills as a teacher and experimentalist, but the dean insisted she had to choose. Brooks ultimately broke off the engagement, and then nonetheless resigned due to the stress. She then took a step away from the scientific life.

In 1906 she spent her summer with the Fabian socialists at Summerbrook, the utopian commune established by Prestonia Mann Martin in the Adirondacks. She fell in with Marxist writer Maxim Gorky, his (then mistress, eventual second wife) Maria Andreyeva and their entourage and ended up, after a visit to Montreal, travelling with the couple by ship from New York to Naples and Capri! Eventually she seems to have bored of this and went to work with Marie Curie in Paris. Curie offered her a position for another year, but Rutherford, who was returning to England to work in Manchester offered her a fellowship. She accepted, but then suddenly withdrew. While in Montreal she had become reaquainted with her engineering tutor Frank Pitcher. He had been writing her ever since insisting that she should marry him as he could provide a stable future. She had been encouraged by her friends Mrs. Mary Rutherford (Ernest's wife) and Prestonia Martin (who both harboured strong traditional ideas about marriage) and she had ultimately gave in and accepted his proposal. He promptly took off on a mountain climbing tour of Europe, insisted on a religious ceremony despite her wishes and left her to return to Montreal and plan the wedding.

They had three children, but tragically lost one to spinal meningitis in childhood and a second to suicide while a student at McGill. Brooks, now Mrs. Frank Pitcher, never returned to research but took on the vocation of upper middle-class wife and mother until her premature death of leukimia at age 56, likely due to her exposure to Radon. She lived a quiet life after her remarkable 6 year science career, gardening and corresponding with those who had known her when she had been young and free. The social pressures and mores of the time, robbed physics of one of its bright lights.

Schematic electron shell diagram for Radon

I put a lot of thought into how to portray her. There is only a single, easily found, clear photo of her during her scientific career - her graduation photo. Showing her with a schematic diagram of Radon, like the photoillustration used by the Canadian Journal of Physics, seems an obvious choice. I considered that, and also, showing Thorium decaying to Radium to Radon, to allude to her discovery of Radon and chains of transmutations. However while these diagrams of atom are very graphic and make for an interesting image, they're misleading in a few ways. First, by showing the electron shells, we focus on chemistry and what's beyond the nucleus (and neither were what Brooks and colleagues were studying). Secondly, neither the nucleus nor electrons had been discovered during her time, so this is anarchronistic. I thought of showing nuclei undergoing alpha decay, and the daughters likewise decaying (more like my portrait of Lise Meitner), but this too whould be anachronistic; prior to 1906, no one had any idea there were protons and neutrons. So, I specifically showed what she discovered - atomic recoil - and depicted it simply, as it way understood at the time. I show Radium (just as a particle) spontaneously give off an alpha particle in one direction and emitting Radon in the other (what we now call the daughter nuclei). I chose this specific reaction to also reference her discovery of Radon itself. I considered showing the actual apparatus she used to investigate "Thorium emanations" since it's quite amazing that McGill has preserved these and posted photos online, but on its own it doesn't tell much of the story (unless you are already well-versed in the early history of research on radioactivity). I thought about showing our modern understanding of radioactive decay series (like the Uranium series above) but that also would have been anarchronistic. To allude to her third discovery, that these transmutations can occur in chains of reactions, at the bottom I have included a diagram that Rutherford published in 1905, labelled as the team at McGill then understood it: Radium gives off  an alpha particle and produces the "Emanation" (now Radon) which in turn gives off an alpha particle to produce "Radium A" (now Polonium), and a series of further transmutations by giving off alpha or beta or gamma particles and producing subsequent daughter nuclei, which at the time were simply labelled "Radium B" through "Radium F".  Her discoveries and work in collaboration with Rutherford, Thomson, Curie and others helped form the foundation for the entire field of nuclear physics and I hope my portrait can help bring her some of the attention she deserves as an important pioneer of the field.

* Chemists and biographers Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham point out the Matthew Effect (named by historian of science Robert Merton) where discoveries are often misattributed to a nearby more famous scientist. Consider the famous 'Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment', for instance, which was actually performed by his graduate students Geiger and Marsden, but by that time he had received the Nobel in chemistry "for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances." Historian of science Margaret Rossiter notes this Matthew Effect most commonly targets women and proposes the term Matilda Effect for the erasure of women from memory and the history of science.

Brooks could be poster child for the Matilda Effect.

** Famously pompous Thomson also disbelieved geological evidence for the age of the Earth, because thermal physics suggested the Earth might have cooled within a few thousand years (more in line with the Bible)... unless there was some other source of heat. There was: radioactivity. Remember, in fairness, at this time, neither the nucleus not the electron had been discovered. You may recall being taught Thomson's "raisin bun" model of the atom.

*** Unlike Pierre Curie, who threated to refuse the Nobel when he discovered that only he and Becquerel (and not Marie Curie) were to be credited with discovery of radioactivity, Otto Hahn did not insist that Meitner be included in his Nobel win (nor for that matter did he stand up for their assistant Fritz Straßmann). We now know that Meitner was nominated for a Nobel prize 47 times! 

It was mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler who alerted Pierre. An early ally to women in science, Gösta Mittag-Leffler also helped mathematician Sofia Kovalevski secure a position as a privat-docent at Stockholm University in Sweden in 1884. Kovalevski developed an intimate "romantic friendship" with his sister, actress, novelist, and playwright Duchess Anne-Charlotte Edgren-Leffler, with whom she lived collaborated on works of literature, for the remainder of her too short life.


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Emanations from Thorium and Radium Rutherford Museum at McGill, acessed March 28, 2018

Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham, "HARRIET BROOKS(1876-1933): CANADA'S FIRST WOMAN PHYSICIST" LA PHYSIQUE AU CANADA, 2005 -

Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, comment on RUTHERFORD, THE “TRUE DISCOVERER OF RADON”, Bull. Hist. Chem., VOLUME 29, Number 2 (2004)

Elizabeth Shearly, Harriet Brooks, pioneering Canadian nuclear physicist, The Canadian Science Publishing blog, accessed March 28, 2018

John Geddes, Why Harriet Brooks Fits the Bill, Macleans, March 6, 2016

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"Harriet Brooks (1876-1933): Radioactivity", accessed March 28, 2018

Brooks, Harriet (1876–1933) Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia
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Dale DeBakcsy, Wither: The Many Triumphs and Long Fall of Nuclear Physicist Harriet Brooks. (Women in Science 71), August 24, 2016

Harriet Brooks (Mrs. Frank Pitcher), Obituary, Nature 131, 865 (17 June 1933), doi:10.1038/131865a0