Ernest Rutherford


Ernest Rutherford : biography

30 August 1871 – 19 October 1937

In 1898 Thomson offered Rutherford the chance of a post at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He was to replace Hugh Longbourne Callendar who held the chair of Macdonald Professor of physics and was coming to Cambridge.

Rutherford was accepted, which meant that in 1900 he could marry Mary Georgina Newton (1876–1945) to whom he had become engaged before leaving New Zealand; they had one daughter, Eileen Mary (1901–1930), who married Ralph Fowler. In 1900 he gained a DSc from the University of New Zealand. In 1907 Rutherford returned to Britain to take the chair of physics at the University of Manchester. 

Later years and honours

He was knighted in 1914. During World War I, he worked on the practical problems of submarine detection. In 1916 he was awarded the Hector Memorial Medal. In 1919 he returned to the Cavendish succeeding J. J. Thomson as the Cavendish professor and Director. Under him, Nobel Prizes were awarded to James Chadwick for discovering the neutron (in 1932), John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton for an experiment which was to be known as splitting the atom using a particle accelerator, and Edward Appleton for demonstrating the existence of the ionosphere. Between 1925 and 1930 he served as President of the Royal Society, and later as president of the Academic Assistance Council which helped almost 1,000 university refugees from Germany.

He was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1925 and raised to the peerage as Baron Rutherford of Nelson, in 1931, a title that became extinct upon his unexpected death in 1937. 

For some time beforehand, Rutherford had a small hernia, which he had neglected to have fixed, and it became strangulated, causing him to be violently ill. Despite an emergency operation in London, he died four days afterwards of what physicians termed "intestinal paralysis", at Cambridge. After cremation at Golders Green Crematorium, he was given the high honour of burial in Westminster Abbey, near Isaac Newton and other illustrious British scientists. Accessed 3 January 2012.


  • , ISBN 978-1-60355-058-1
  • , ISBN 978-1-60355-054-3
  • The Electrical Structure of Matter (1926)
  • The Artificial Transmutation of the Elements (1933)
  • The Newer Alchemy (1937)

Scientific research

At Cambridge, Rutherford started working with J. J. Thomson on the conductive effects of X-rays on gases, work which led to the discovery of the electron which Thomson presented to the world in 1897. Hearing of Becquerel’s experience with uranium, Rutherford started to explore its radioactivity, discovering two types that differed from X-rays in their penetrating power and continuing his research in Canada. He coined the terms alpha ray and beta ray in 1899 to describe the two distinct types of radiation. He then discovered that thorium gave off a gas which produced an emanation which was itself radioactive and would coat other substances. He found that a sample of this radioactive material of any size invariably took the same amount of time for half the sample to decay – its "half-life" (11½ minutes in this case).

From 1900 to 1903, he was joined at McGill by the young chemist Frederick Soddy (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1921) for whom he set the problem of identifying the thorium emanations. Once he had eliminated all the normal chemical reactions, Soddy suggested that it must be one of the inert gases, which they named thoron (later found to be an isotope of radon). They also found another type of thorium they called Thorium X, and kept on finding traces of helium. They also worked with samples of "Uranium X" from William Crookes and radium from Marie Curie.

In 1902, they produced a "Theory of Atomic Disintegration" to account for all their experiments. Up till then atoms were assumed to be the indestructable basis of all matter and although Curie had suggested that radioactivity was an atomic phenomenon, the idea of the atoms of radioactive substances breaking up was a radically new idea. Rutherford and Soddy demonstrated that radioactivity involved the spontaneous disintegration of atoms into other types of atoms (one element spontaneously being changed to another).