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Rutherford - A Brief Biography

John Campbell
john.campbell at

(All material is from my book Rutherford Scientist Supreme. The text of this version of the many brief biographies I have written on Rutherford appeared in edited form in the June 2001 issue of The World and I magazine, a publication of the Washington Times Corporation. )

Ernest Rutherford is one of the most illustrious scientists of all time.

He is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to electricity and Einstein to relativity. His pathway from rural child to immortality is a fascinating one.

Rutherford's works ensure his immortality. As the The New York Times stated, in a eulogy accompanying the announcement of his unexpected and unnecessary death in 1937.
" It is given to but few men to achieve immortality, still less to achieve Olympian rank, during their own lifetime. Lord Rutherford achieved both. In a generation that witnessed one of the greatest revolutions in the entire history of science he was universally acknowledged as the leading explorer of the vast infinitely complex universe within the atom, a universe that he was first to penetrate."

Not for him the fame based on one discovery. He radically altered our understanding of nature on three separate occasions. Through brilliantly conceived experiments, and with special insight, he explained the perplexing problem of radioactivity as the spontaneous disintegration of atoms (they were not necessarily stable entities as had been assumed since the time of the ancient Greeks), he determined the structure of the atom and he was the world's first successful alchemist (he converted nitrogen into oxygen). Or put another way, he was first to split the atom.

Any of his secondary discoveries, such as dating the age of the Earth, would have given fame to a lesser scientist. For example, the first method invented to detect individual nuclear particles by electrical means, the Rutherford-Geiger detector, evolved into the Geiger-Muller tube. The modern smoke detector, responsible for saving so many lives in house fires, can be traced back to 1899 when, at McGill University in Canada, Rutherford blew tobacco smoke into his ionisation chamber and observed the change in ionisation.

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His background is rather unique, having been born in New Zealand, a country which, within a mere 50 years of formal European settlement of that remote British Colony, could admit him to its, already 20-year-old, university.

Ernest Rutherford was born at Spring Grove in rural Nelson on August 30th 1871, the second son and fourth child of twelve born to James and Martha Rutherford. Scottish James had arrived in New Zealand in 1843 as a four-year old. James became a wheelwright and engineer, and later a flax-miller. As a boy Ernest was surrounded by hard-working people with technical skills. Map of main locations in New Zealand.

Martha Rutherford (née Thompson) was born in England and arrived in New Plymouth in 1855 as a thirteen-year old. She was evacuated to Nelson in 1860 during the Taranaki Land War. Had it not been for that war James and Martha would never have met. Martha became a teacher at the Spring Grove school where her efforts were always praised by the provincial school inspector. So Ernest Rutherford and his siblings received a good education because of parents who appreciated education: his father because he hadn't had much and his mother because she had.

Ern led the life typical of a child growing up in rural New Zealand. Family chores, such as milking cows and gathering firewood, ate up time after school. On Saturdays the boys were free for swimming in the creek, and birdsnesting to raise money for catapult rubber and kite strings. The family shifted according to the father's work; in 1876 to Foxhill for farming and railway construction, in 1883 to Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds for flax-milling, and finally in 1888 to Taranaki for flaxmilling.

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At age ten at Foxhill School Ernest received his first science book. Amongst the many suggested experiments in it one, on using the speed of sound to determine the distance to a firing cannon, gave him the knowledge to surprise his family by estimating the distance to a lighting flash. Perhaps it was also this book which inspired him to make a minature cannon out of a hat peg, a marble and blasting powder. The cannon exploded, luckily without causing injury.

At Havelock Ernest was lucky to avoid the drowning fate of two of his brothers and lucky to be taught by a country school-teacher of above average ability. In 1887 Ernest, on his second attempt, won a Scholarship to Nelson College, until that time the only scholarship available to assist a Marlborough boy to attend secondary school.

For the next three years Ernest boarded at Nelson College. In 1889 he was head boy (the Dux of the school, hence his nick-name 'quacks'), played in the rugby team and, once again on his second attempt, won one of the ten scholarships available nationally to assist attendance at a college of the University of New Zealand.

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From 1890 to 1894 Ern attended Canterbury College in Christchurch. There he played rugby and participated in the activities of the Dialectic Society (a student debating society), the graduation day celebrations (for which he co-wrote one song) and the recently formed Science Society. In 1892 he passed BA in Pure Mathematics and Latin (both compulsory), Applied Mathematics, English, French and Physics.

His mathematical ability won him the one Senior Scholarship in Mathematics available in New Zealand. This allowed him to return for a further (honours or Masters) year during which he took both mathematics and physics. For the latter Ern was influenced by Alexander Bickerton, a liberal freethinker. The physics course required an original investigation so Ern elected to extend an undergraduate experiment in order to determine if iron was magnetic at very high frequencies of magnetising current. In this he had been inspired by Nikola Tesla's use of his high frequency Tesla coil to transmit power without wires. Ern developed two devices; a simple mechanism for switching two electrical circuits with a time interval between them which could be adjusted to be as short as a hundred thousandth of a second, and a magnetic detector of very fast current pulses.

In 1893 Ern obtained a Master of Arts degree with double First Class Honours, in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics and in Physical Science (Electricity and Magnetism). At this time he boarded with a widow, Mary Newton, who, as secretary of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, was a leader in the movement which culminated in 1893 when New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant women the vote. Coincidentally it was also the first election for which Ern was old enough to appear on the electoral roll.

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Having failed for the third time to obtain a permanent job as a school-teacher, and having briefly considered going into medicine, Ern had few other options for a career. He seemed to be limited to tutoring, to help support himself whilst carrying out more research in electrical science. The Royal Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851 had just initiated scholarships to allow graduates of universities in the British Empire to go anywhere in the world and work on research of importance to their home country's industries. Every second year one scholarship was available for a graduate of the University of New Zealand.

Thus it was that in 1894 Ern returned to Canterbury College where he took geology and chemistry for a BSc degree. (A candidate for a scholarship had to be enrolled at the University.) For the research work required of a candidate, Ern extended his researches of the previous year to even higher frequencies using the damped oscillatory current from discharging a Leyden-jar (an electrical capacitor) or a Hertzian oscillator. He showed that a steel needle surrounded by a wire loop in the discharge circuit was indeed magnetised for frequencies as high as 500 million per second. By slowly dissolving the needle in acid he showed that only a very thin surface layer of the needle was magnetised.

Two candidates submitted work for the scholarship allocated to New Zealand. The University's examiners in England recommended that James Maclaurin of Auckland University College be nominated. (His brother later became the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Maclaurin could not accept the terms of the scholarship so the University therefore nominated Ern, the only other candidate, who was duly awarded it.

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Cambridge I

Ernest Rutherford left New Zealand in 1895 as a highly skilled 23-year-old who held three degrees from the University of New Zealand and had a reputation as an outstanding researcher and innovator working at the forefront of electrical technology. His brilliance at experimental research was already established.

He elected to work with Professor J J Thomson of Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory and was Cambridge University's first non-Cambridge-graduate research student. Rutherford adapted his detector of very fast transient currents for use as a frequency meter and used it to measure the dielectric properties of electrical insulators. To compare its sensitivity as a detector of electromagnetic waves against that of the standard detector of the time, the coherer, he mounted his detector in the receiving circuit of a Hertzian oscillator/receiver unit and found, as had others before him, that he could detect electromagnetic waves over a few metres even when there was a brick wall between the two circuits.

Encouraged by Sir Robert Ball, who wished to solve the difficult problem that a ship could not detect a lighthouse in fog, and sensing fame and fortune, Rutherford increased the sensitivity of his apparatus until, in February of 1896, he could detect electromagnetic waves over a distance of several hundred metres, a then world record.

JJ Thomson, who was about to discover the first object smaller than an atom (the electron), quickly realised that Rutherford was a researcher of exceptional ability. Thomson invited him to join in a study of the electrical conduction of gases. Wireless telegraphy was thus left for Guglielmo Marconi to develop and commercialize.

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Rutherford developed several ingenious techniques to study the mechanism whereby normally insulating gases become electrical conductors when a high voltage is applied across them. When X-rays were discovered a few months later he used them to initiate electrical conduction in gases. He repeated this with rays from radioactive atoms when they were discovered in 1896. His interest soon switched to understanding radioactivity itself, an interest which became his life's work but his contribution to the earlier fields should not be forgotten.

In 1898 Rutherford discovered that two quite separate types of emissions came from radioactive atoms and he named them alpha and beta rays. Beta rays were soon shown to be high speed electrons.

Barred in the near term from advancement at Cambridge, Rutherford in 1898 accepted a professorship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. (The following year Cambridge University changed its rules to allow earlier promotion to Fellowship.) The laboratories at McGill were very well equipped. As Rutherford wrote to his wife-to-be "I am expected to do a lot of work and to form a research school in order to knock the shine out of the Yankees!"

Rutherford returned to New Zealand in 1900 to marry Mary Georgina Newton, the daughter of his landlady in Christchurch. They were to have one child, Eileen.

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At McGill Rutherford promptly discovered radon, a chemically unreactive but radioactive gas. In this he was assisted by his first research student, Harriet Brookes. Rutherford, with the later help of a young chemist, Frederick Soddy, unravelled the mysteries of radioactivity, showing that some heavy atoms spontaneously decay into slightly lighter atoms. This was the work which first brought him to world attention. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1900 and of London in 1903. His first book Radioactivity was published in 1904. In 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry `for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.' As a bemused Ern often told friends, the fastest transformation he knew of was his transformation from a physicist to a chemist.

It is usually overlooked that Rutherford’s Nobel Prize was the first awarded for work done in Canada. This is because the award was made after he had shifted to Manchester in 1907.

On realising that lead was the final decay product of uranium, Rutherford proposed that a measure of their relative proportions and the rate of decay of uranium atoms would allow minerals to be dated and, subsequently, this technique placed a lower limit on the age of the formation of the Earth. Radioactive dating of geological samples underpins modern geology. Throughout his time in Canada Rutherford was regularly head-hunted by American universities and institutions, for example Yale and the Smithsonian Institute. The main result of these approaches was that McGill kept upping his salary. Rutherford always had a shift in mind, but only to Britain in order to be nearer the main centres of science, and to have access to more, and better, research students.

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Professor Schuster of Manchester University inherited a large fortune so offered to step down from his chair if Rutherford would accept the position. He would. Transferring there in 1907 he showed convincingly what he had long suspected, namely that the alpha particle was a helium atom stripped of its electrons. He and an assistant, Hans Geiger, developed the electrical method of tirelessly detecting single particles emitted by radioactive atoms, the Rutherford-Geiger detector. With this he could determine important physical constants such as Avogadro's number, the number of atoms or molecules in one gramme-mole of material.

While at McGill Rutherford had noted that a narrow beam of alpha particles became fuzzy on passing through a thin sheet of mica. Now he set Geiger to measuring the relative numbers of alpha particles as a function of scattering angle. Geiger also had the responsibility of training undergraduates in techniques relevant to radioactivity measurements. particle diagram When Geiger reported to Rutherford that an undergraduate student, Ernest Marsden, was ready for a project of his own, Rutherford set him the task of investigating whether any alpha particles were reflected from metals. Marsden found that some alpha rays were scattered directly backwards, even from a thin film of gold. It was, a surprised Rutherford later stated, as if one had fired a large naval shell at a piece of tissue paper and it had bounced back.

In 1911, Rutherford deduced from these results that almost all of the mass of an atom, an object so small that it would take over five million of them side-by-side to cross a full stop on this page, is concentrated in a nucleus a thousand times smaller than the atom itself. (If the orbital electrons in our atoms were compressed into the nucleus we would occupy the space of a small grain of sand.) The nuclear model of the atom had been born. This second great discovery gave him enduring fame.

A young Dane, Neils Bohr, was attracted to work with Rutherford after having seen him in jovial mood whilst being feted at a Cavendish Laboratory dinner. Bohr placed the electrons in stable formation around the atomic nucleus. The Rutherford-Bohr atom features in chemistry and physics books used world-wide and Rutherford scattering is still used today to probe sub-nuclear particles and the structure of micro-electronic devices.

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War Work

Rutherford was knighted in the 1914 New Years Honours list and visited Australia and New Zealand for a scientific meeting and for a family reunion. War was declared just before he reached Australia. After a three month visit to New Zealand Rutherford returned to Britain where he worked on acoustic methods of detecting submarines for the British Admiralty's Board of Invention and Research. One of the Board's tasks was to evaluate all suggestions received. One involved using sea lions from a circus to see if they could be used in detecting submarines.

Rutherford's only patent is from his development of a directional hydrophone and that was assigned to the Admiralty. When the Americans finally entered the war in 1917 Sir Ernest Rutherford led the delegation to transfer submarine detection knowledge to them. He fruitlessly advised the American Government to use young scientists on problems associated with war work and to not waste their lives and skills in the trenches. (One of his brightest students, Harry Moseley, on track for a Nobel Prize for his work on using X-rays to probe the electronic structure of atoms, had been killed in Turkey.)

Near the end of the war Rutherford returned to the pursuit of non-war science. While playing marbles by bombarding light atoms with alpha rays, he observed outgoing protons of energy larger than that of the incoming alpha particles. From this observation he correctly deduced that the bombardment had converted nitrogen atoms into hydrogen atoms. He thus became the world's first successful alchemist and the first person to split the atom, his third great claim to fame.

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Cambridge II

In 1919 Rutherford became the Director of Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory. The following decade was one of consolidation, of setting up a first class research team and of tidying up loose ends. In 1925 Rutherford once more travelled out to Australia and New Zealand to give public lectures and to visit ailing parents. He was then an imposing figure: tall, well-built and with bright blue eyes. The six-week tour of New Zealand, his fourth and last visit to his homeland, was that of an international celebrity. Wherever he went he received civic receptions and halls were packed to overflowing to hear him give illustrated talks on the structure of the atom. Rutherford declared that he had always been very proud of being a New Zealander.

In his public pronouncements to the news media he regularly encouraged the Goverment to reserve some of the most scenic parts of New Zealand for posterity and he supported education and research. In particular, he recommended that New Zealand scientists devote special attention to researches of benefit to farmers. His support helped the establishment of New Zealand's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1926.

The Rutherfords' daughter Eileen had married Ralph Fowler, a mathematical physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory. They had four children; Peter who became a distinguished cosmic ray physicist, Elizabeth a doctor, Patrick an electrical engineer monitoring safety at nuclear power plants and Ruth a research physiologist. Sadly, Eileen died of an embolism at age 29, nine days after the birth of her fourth child and just two days before Christmas of 1930.

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This tragedy overshadowed Rutherford's elevation to the peerage in the New Year's honours list for 1931, thus becoming Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson. He chose to include in his coat of arms a Kiwi, a Maori Warrior and Hermes Trismegistus, the patron saint of knowledge and alchemists. His shield is quartered by the curves of the decay and growth of radioactivity. His latin motto, `Primordia Quaerere Rerum', (which translates as `To Seek the Nature of Things') was chosen from Lucretius' `On the Nature of the Universe'.

He spoke only twice in the House of Lords, on both occasions in support of industrial research.

1932 was a vintage year for Rutherford and the Cavendish Laboratory. James Chadwick discovered the neutron. A decade earlier Rutherford had predicted it must exist and in the interim had often mentioned to Chadwick what properties it must have.

In that same year John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton finally split the atom by entirely artificial means using protons, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, which had been accelerated to very high speeds in a high voltage accelerator. The age of big science had begun under Rutherford's guidance.

For years Rutherford had assumed that to penetrate the nucleus of an atom one would need particles accelerated through a few million volts to match the energy with which particles were ejected from radioactive atoms. Hence for years he had cajoled British industry to push development of high voltage sources. The breakthrough though came from George Gamow's application of quantum mechanics to show that lower energies would be more efficient at penetrating the atomic nucleus.

After Cockcroft and Walton's success, Rutherford had Mark Oliphant build a lower voltage accelerator but with a much improved particle flux. Following the gift of heavy hydrogen (dueterium) from Gilbert Lewis of Berkeley, they bombarded dueterium with deuterium and discovered tritium (H3 the third isotope of hydrogen) and the light isotope of helium (He3).

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Rutherford served well his science, his laboratory, his university and his adopted country. He campaigned for CambridgeUniversity to grant women the same privileges as men. He carried out regular public duties such as supporting the freedom of the British Broadcasting Corporation from goverment censorship, served on its Panel of Advisors and gave regular radio talks on his work. While on the Board of Management of the Commissioners of the Exhibition of 1851 he defended the award of scholarships to overseas universities. As Chairman of the Advisory Council of the British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research he advised the British Government on scientific matters and opened many research laboratories. Most Sundays he played golf for recreation.

Rutherford was one of the first to determine that the energy involved in the radioactive decay of an atom was millions of times that of a chemical bond and he was the first to be convinced that the energy was internal to all atoms. In 1916, during the dark days of World War I, Rutherford stated that there was then no way that the energy of the atom could be extracted efficiently and he personally hoped that methods would not be discovered until man was living at peace with his neighbours.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933 and commenced his non-Aryan policy, Lord Rutherford helped found, and was President of, the Academic Assistance Council which aided displaced academics. This was to be one of the biggest mass migrations of scientists the world had seen and it began the transference of the centre of science from Europe to America. As the clouds of war once more gathered over Europe, Rutherford presided over a meeting of the Cambridge University branch of the Democratic Front in which he made a case for an international ban on the use of aeroplanes in warfare. These aspects of his life's work are nigh forgotten but deserve greater recognition.

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Ernest Rutherford died aged 66 on the 19th of October 1937, the result of delays in operating on his partially strangulated umbilical hernia. His ashes were interred in London's Westminster Abbey, under an inscribed flagstone near the choir screen in the Nave. When JJ Thomson died in 1940 he was interred next to Rutherford. Newton presides above them and they are surrounded by other greats of British science.

Lady Rutherford retired to Christchurch New Zealand, where she died in 1954. Rutherford's medals, possibly the best assemblage of scientific medals in the world, were given to the University of Canterbury.

During his lifetime Rutherford was awarded many scientific prizes and honorary degrees from many countries and Fellowships of many societies and organisations (such as the Royal College of Physicians and the Institution of Electrical Engineers). Among other honours he was elected President of the Royal Society (1926-30), President of the Institute of Physics (1931-3) and was decorated with the Order of Merit (1925).

Death did not stop the public acclamation. Many buildings in many countries have been named in his honour. He has appeared on the stamps of at least eleven countries; Sweden (1968), Canada (1971), Russia (1971) Romania (1971), New Zealand (1971 and 2000). Congo (2001), Djibouti (2006), Antigua&Barbuda (2008), Guine-Bissau (2009), Britain, and Ivory Coast (2016). Curiously, he never featured on a British stamp until he appeared in a 2010 series of Fellows of the Royal Society to mark the Royal Society's 350 anniversary. In 1991 the Rutherford Origin was built on the site of his birth in rural Nelson. It incorporates into a garden setting a permanent outdoor display of information about his life and work and is open all hours. In 2003 the Pickering/Rutherford/Havelock Memorial was opened at Havelock in the Marborough Sounds. In November of 1992 he featured on the new NZ$100 banknote. Because it is the highest denomination banknote his image regularly appears as background on TV news items, and TV and newspaper advertisments, involved with finance.

His discoveries are his real memorial. But forgotten is his humility in giving his co-workers more than full credit. Whilst he was at Manchester he didn't put his name on a third of the papers reporting on radioactivity even though he initiated almost every investigation. Often he would do the preliminary work then hand the topic to a student or colleague. He never put his name on Geiger and Marsden's paper announcing large angle scattering of alpha rays, nor on Chadwick's paper announcing the neutron, nor on Cockcroft and Walton's paper announcing the splitting of the atom using a particle accelerator.

His humility should also be a memorial.

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Translations of this Short Biography into Other Languages

Ukranian.  Український переклад доступний па адресу...


Other Short Biographies

The following are known to me and, by and large, meet my standard of coverage and accuracy.

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

The DNZB was a major project to mark the 1990 sesquicentennial of New Zealand. It covers people whose major period of activity was up to 1960. A project of the History Section of the Department of Internal Affairs, it was published as 5 volumes, most recently by Auckland University Press ( The section now comes under the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. The date of publication of each volume, and the period of peak activity covered, is as follows.

Vol 1 1990 1769-1869
Vol 2 1993 1870-1900
Vol 3 1996 1901-1920 (Rutherford)
Vol 4 1998 1921-1940
Vol 5 2000 1941-1960

I wrote the Rutherford essay. Basically they are now waiting for more people to die before extending into the next two decades. It is difficult to have impartial biographies written about people still alive.

The electronic version of DNZB was opened 19th Feb 2002 at The printed version had no illustrations, the electronic version will have.

Nobel Archive

The Nobel Archive now has an electronic museum which includes biographies of Nobel Laureates. See Because of copyright they are reluctant to correct the few little points in error. This is a pity as this is the first source schoolchildren may go to when seeking a short biography of Rutherford.

2nd Para
Rutherford was 15, not 16, when he arrived at Nelson College, not Nelson Collegiate School.
The UNZ was an examining body based in the capital Wellington where no teaching was done. At the time it comprised one university (Otago) and two colleges (Canterbury and Auckland).
He sat BA in 1892, MA in 1893 and BSc in 1894.
He was awarded the 1851 Scholarship in 1895, not 1894. He elected to take it with JJ Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory.

4th Para
His second paper, covering his first year of research in 1893, was published in the Trans of the NZI for 1895, not 1896.

7th Para
He first split the atom in 1917, not 1919. The work was published in 1919.

NZ Edge

NZ Edge ( has a heroes section which includes several New Zealand scientists, including Rutherford. I do not know who wrote this article. It was written prior to 1999.

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