Lives of the fellows

Ernest (Sir) Baron Rutherford of Nelson Rutherford

b.30 July 1871 d.19 October 1937
Kt(1914) OM(1925) MA NZ(1893) BSc NZ(1894) BA Cantab(1897) Hon MA Cantab(1919) FRS(1902) Hon FRCP(1928)

Ernest Rutherford, whose brilliant work was to earn him an honoured resting place in Westminster Abbey close by the graves of Newton, Darwin and Kelvin, was the second son of a flour and saw miller, James Rutherford, son of a Scots emigrant, and his wife Martha Thompson. Born at Nelson, near Brightwater in New Zealand, he went from the local State School on a scholarship to Nelson School, where he showed early promise of his abnormal powers of concentration and his love of sport, music and photography. In 1890 he gained a scholarship to Christchurch College, Canterbury, where he came under the influence of A. W. Bickerton, the professor of physics and chemistry, and of G. H. H. Cook, the professor of mathematics, and wrote his graduation thesis in physics on magnetisation of iron by high-frequency discharges, a thesis contrary to contemporary belief. As a result of this and of his paper to the Science Society in 1891 on the evolution of elements, he gave up his school-teaching, and came to Cambridge on an 1894 exhibition scholarship to work under J. J. Thomson. There he developed his ideas on his detector and was able to receive signals over distances up to a half-mile, then the longest known.

To Thomson he gave very material assistance in his work on the passage of electricity through gases, especially on the behaviour of ‘ions’ by which conduction is accomplished. In many of these investigations the ionisation of the gases was produced by Roentgen rays.

Thus began his researches on radioactivity which demonstrated his rare combination of ingenuity, judgment and courage. The greater part of the consequent work on this subject was done at McGill University, Montreal, where he was appointed to the Macdonald chair of physics in 1898. In 1907 he went to the Longworthy chair at Manchester to continue his researches, and in 1919 he succeeded J. J. Thomson in the Cavendish professorship at Cambridge. Now his work was mainly the study of the atomic nucleus.

He produced his bold, unorthodox hypothesis of a natural transmutation of metals in a continual process, and by classical researches showed that radioactivity was simply a consequence of the bursting of the atom, which in its most violent form brought the separation of the radioactive atom into two parts, one the atom of the gas, helium, and the other a new one, usually also radioactive. Thus came an entirely new view of all branches of scientific knowledge. There followed his second hypothesis: these two atoms could not be mutually impenetrable; they must resemble miniature solar systems in their emptiness. Each must possess a positive nucleus occupying a relatively minute central volume, and round it electrons must revolve in orbits. His work led to the wonders of modern mathematical physics and eventually to the artificial disintegration of the elements by various forms of radiation.

Unlike Faraday he could work with devoted assistants to whom he gave full recognition for their aid in his complicated researches. Although he did much public work in addition, and willingly gave up his cherished projects to address himself to submarine detection and location in World War I, he played as cheerfully as he worked, and enjoyed a simple home life with his wife, Mary Newton, of Christchurch, whom he had married in 1900, and by whom he had a daughter.

Rutherford was justly loaded with honours that sat lightly on him. He was knighted in 1914, created Baron Rutherford in 1931, and awarded the Rumford medal, 1905, and the Copley medal, 1922, of the Royal Society, the Franklin medal of the Franklin Institute in 1924 and the Faraday medal in 1930. In 1908 he had been given the Nobel prize for chemistry, in 1925 the Order of Merit, and meantime had been honoured by scientific societies all over the world.

Richard R Trail

[Brit.J.Radiol., 1937, 10, 822-5; Lancet, 1937, 2, 976; Nature (Lond.), 1937, 140, 746-55, 1047-54; Obit. Not. roy. Soc., 1936-8, 2, 395-423 (p); Times, 20 (p), 21, 22 Oct. 1937; D.N.B. 1931-1940, 765-74; I. B. N. Evans. Man of power: the life story of Baron Rutherford of Nelson. London, 1939 (p); A. S. Eve. Rutherford: life and letters. London, 1939 (p); J. H. S. Rowland. Ernest Rutherford, atom pioneer. London, 1955 (p); etc. Information about portraits in D.N.B.]

(Volume V, page 362)

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