Biography | Milestones | DVD/Books | Birthplace | Other Places | Awards | Honouring Ern | Bibliography | Miscellaneous | Site Map



Rutherford Mythology
- Nobel Prize Work
- Peerage
- "Parents"
- "Thug to women"
- First Researches
- Wireless Signalling
- Splitting the Atom
- Scholarships Obtained
- The Rutherford's Ship

Rutherford Paintings
Rutherford Sketches
Rutherford Busts
Rutherford Photographs
Rutherford Quotations
Rutherford Artifacts
Rutherford Houses

Rutherford Mythology

This section started as addressing the mythology but has been expanded to include common errors, eg as in Peerage, and claims which are suspect or worse.

Nobel Prize Work

   It is a very common myth in New Zealand that Ernest Rutherford received a Nobel Prize for splitting the atom. He didn`t. That work was first done in 1917, nearly a decade after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and 15 years after he did the main work for which he received the prize. It is a particularly difficult myth to eradicate.  It even appears in an American university text (p1010 College Physics by Serway and Faughn 3rd Edition 1991). But we cannot blame others. Our media, and even Prime-Ministers, have been known to repeat the myth.

   Ernest Rutherford was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances."

Correct Form of Address

   Sir Ernest Rutherford, when raised to the peerage, became Lord Rutherford or Ernest Lord Rutherford.

   Lord Ernest Rutherford, by which he is widely refered to in New Zealand, is incorrect.

back to top

Photograph of "Parents"

   This photograph, labelled as Rutherford`s parents, has been used as such in two books in New Zealand: (Cox and Whittall, Rutherford - The Early Years (1991) and the booklet printed for the touring Rutherford exhibition 2000-2002.) The couple in this photo are most certainly not Ernest Rutherford`s parents, as should be obvious to anyone who has seen a photo of either parent, and are no relation to Ernest Rutherford. After the first use I thought I had got this out of the system but apparently not.

   I sure hope this photograph never again appears as such in any other book or publication.

back to top

"Rutherford a thug to women"

    David Bodanis, in his book E = mc2 (New York, Walker, 2000), makes the outrageous claim that with women Rutherford "was bluff and pretty much a thug." What twaddle. In refuting this claim I am joined by four other biographers of the period who well know Rutherford's character.

    Bodanis`s book is a fast overview of a subject. He has taken one reminiscence, Cecilia Payne`s, and presumeably never saw all the evidence that, to the contrary, Ernest Rutherford was a champion of women in science.

    I think it a great shame that a popular author can, in seeking a catchy phrase, malign someone who is worthy of better. This claim was first drawn to my attention by a reporter who sought my reaction (which I gave emphatically together with proof), yet the headline on the front page of the Weekend Herald (Auckland 6 Jan 2001) still read "Kiwi science legend 'sexist thug'."

    The following letter was sent to, and declined by, Nature and Physics Today. because at that time they hadn't reviewed the book.

    The Editor, 5 Jan 2002 .


    In his recent book E = mc2, David Bodanis makes an outrageous claim about Ernest Rutherford, that "with women he was bluff and pretty much a thug." This claim is nowhere near the truth, if not libellous.

    Rutherford had an ex-schoolteacher mother, and he had six sisters all of whom received a good education in New Zealand. Four of the ten University of New Zealand Junior Scholarships awarded in 1889 were won by women. As a student at the University of New Zealand's Canterbury College (1890-1894), he was brought up with women students having the same rights as men because the college had fully accepted women as equals from the day it opened in 1871. He tutored at least one female student, in mathematics. His landlady, and future mother-in-law, was one of the stalwarts who ensured New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women the vote, in 1893, the year that he too first appeared on the electoral roll. His wife marched with the suffragettes in Britain before they belatedly won the vote.

    His first research student was a woman, Harriet Brooks (McGill University 1898). They remained lifelong friends, they had great respect for each other and Rutherford wrote her obituary for Nature (17 June 1933). Rutherford had several other women students including Fanny Gates, May Leslie and Elizabeth Karamichailova.

    Bodanis has used only the reminiscence of Cecilia Payne, the only woman in an advanced physics class at Cambridge, who took offence not only at having to sit in the front row by herself (as the decorum of the day dictated) but also by Rutherford opening each lecture with "Ladies and Gentlemen". It seems certain that Payne misinterpreted a supportive gesture by Rutherford. At the time, lecturers at Cambridge commonly addressed their classes as "Gentlemen" even when, as was often the case during the First World War, the class was exclusively female. Thus to commence his lectures with "Ladies and Gentlemen" can be seen as a deliberate provocative stance in support of the presence of women in the lecture room.

    There are several examples of Rutherford's vocal support for women's rights, including the letter to The Times (8 Dec 1920) whereby Rutherford and the professor of chemistry encouraged their fellow academics to give full rights to women at Cambridge University. "...we welcome the presence of women in our laboratories ..." Majorie Stevenson told one of us (JAC) that as a young child she had sat on Rutherford's knee. After telling her that she was a very determined little girl he had asked her to promise him that she would become a scientist. And she did.

    It is regrettable that Bodanis, in seeking a catchy comment, maligns a person who in fact championed women in science and in higher education.

John Campbell (author, Rutherford Scientist Supreme),
University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Lawrence Badash (author, Rutherford entry - Dictionary of National Biography (UK)),
University of California at Santa Barbara, USA.

Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham (authors, Harriet Brooks - Pioneer Nuclear Scientist), Memorial University, Canada.

Jeff Hughes (historian of the nuclear period of the Cavendish Laboratory),
Manchester University, UK.


Bodanis, David. E=mc2 - A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation.   Macmillian, 2000, p176.
Katherine Haramundanis (Ed). Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. CUP, 1984, p118-9.
The Times 8 Dec 1920. (This letter is reproduced in part p381-382 Rutherford Scientist Supreme.)
Phillips, A. ``Gentlemen'' - A Newnham Anthology. CUP, 1979, p120.

Cecilia's reminiscence (c1921) is "The advanced course in physics began with Rutherford's lectures. I was the only women student who attended them and the regulations required that women should sit by themselves in the front row. There had been a time when a chaperone was necessary but mercifully that day was past. At every lecture would gaze at me pointedly, as I sat by myself under his very nose, and would begin in his stentorian voice: 'Ladies and Gentleman'. All the boys regularly greeted this witticism with thunderous applause, stamping with their feet in the traditional manner, and at every lecture I wished I could sink into the earth. To this day I instinctively take my place as far back as possible in a lecture room."

(JAC Examples of foot-stamping as the standard method of applauding can be heard in the recordings of Rutherford's 1936 Lectures at Gottingen.)

Celcilia's rememberance of Rutherford would also be coloured by Eileen Rutherford, a fellow Newnham College student but on the arts side, who once took Cecilia home for tea and later reported to her that her father had said "She isn't interested in you, my dear; she's interested in me." "I was outraged, for I was in fact very fond of her. There may have been a grain of truth in his remark, nevertheless."

Cecilia, whose father died when she was 4 and was educated at all girls schools and Newnham College, Cambridge's college for females, also states "I was still agonizingly shy, and quite unacustomed to dealing with men."

back to top

First Researches

      First mentioned in Eve`s book of 1939, it is often claimed that Rutherford started research in his fifth year (1894) at Canterbury College. This is not so. He was an accomplished researcher by the end of his 4th year (1893), because of research needed before sitting his MA papers. This area is well covered in  Rutherford Scientist Supreme. Rutherford left New Zealand after two years research at the forefront of the electrical technology of the day. His brilliance as an experimentalist was already evident.

back to top

Wireless Signalling in New Zealand

The Rutherford-Marconi Magnetic Detector of wireless signals.
   It is often claimed that Ernest Rutherford did wireless signalling before he left New Zealand. He did not. The claim comes from a 1923 reminisence of the biology master at Christchurch Boys' High School but there is no supporting contemporary evidence and all the contemporary evidence says otherwise, as did Ern at the end of his 3rd paper. His New Zealand research is covered in Chapters 6 and 7 of Rutherford Scientist Supreme and I summarise the evidence in the interlude (pps 204-6).

   At Canterbury Ern was determining whether or not iron was magnetic at very high frequencies. As part of this work he developed a magnetic detector of very fast current pulses in circuits and he did use a Hertzian Oscillator to produce damped pulses of shorter duration than he could produce using his timing device.

   It was only after he had been at Cambridge for two months (late 1895) that he embarked on wireless signalling. The first known wireless signalling experiments in New Zealand were those of J S S Cooper at Canterbury College in 1899.

back to top

Splitting the Atom

The unofficial banner to mark Ern`s Presidency of the BAAS meeting at Liverpool, 1923.
   There is a lot of confusion over this term. "Splitting the nucleus" would be less confusing as "splitting the atom" has a messy background.

   The atom was unknowingly split when people first made chemical reactions (because that often involves the transfer of electrons from one atom to another), when physicists first made electrical discharges in gases and when scientists first demonstrated electrolysis. JJ Thomson demonstrated the first evidence of the existence of bodies smaller than the atom when he discovered the electron in 1897. Ernest Rutherford spent two years helping JJ with experiments on the conduction of electricity in gas discharges so was an instant convert to bodies smaller than atoms. By 1902 Rutherford had shown that radioactivity was atoms spontaneously decaying into other species with the emission of particles, ie some heavy atoms split spontaneously.

   Ernest Rutherford was the first person to knowingly split the nucleus, in 1918 at Manchester University where he bombarded nitrogen with naturally occuring alpha particles from radioactive material and observed a proton emitted with energy higher than the alpha particle. (The nitrogen had been converted to oxygen.)  The reaction is shown on the New Zealand 7c stamp of 1971. (See this stamp under Honouring Ern.)

   New Zealanders usually state that Ernest Rutherford is most well known for splitting the atom. However they usually have in mind the 1932 event when Cockroft and Walton, working under Rutherford`s direction, first split the nucleus by entirely artificial means, using a particle accelerator to bombard lithium with protons thereby producing two alpha particles.

   Induced radioactivity was discovered by the Joliot-Curies who fired alpha particles at stable nuclei. These combined to produce unstable nuclei which later decayed.   Americans, particularly near Chicago, often attribute "splitting the atom" to Enrico Fermi and have a memorial to say so.

   In 1920 Rutherford predicted that an uncharged particle (the neutron) of similar mass to the proton had to exist, and that being uncharged it could easily penetrate into atomic nuclei. Fermi verified this. In 1939 Hahn and Strassmann bombarded uranium with neutrons and claimed to produce an atom chemically similar to barium. Lise Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, explained this as the uranium nucleus splitting into two roughly equal halves with the emission of several neutrons, the basis for the chain reaction which gave rise to nuclear power and bombs.

   The atom bomb should have been called the nuclear bomb, because it depends on the rearrangement of nuclear particles. Traditional bombs could then have been called atomic bombs as their chemical reactions depend on rearranging combinations of atoms and ions, a process about a million times less energetic than a nuclear rearrangement.

  In Physics In Canada 67(1) 139 2011 is a letter to the editor on this topic with my response.

back to top

The Ease with which Rutherford Obtained Scholarships

   Too often people writing about Rutherford uncritically repeat a statement written about him by early biographers who knew him in later life. But as there have been some 50 biographies since the first, a few more well-researched ones are worthy of consultation for up-to-date knowledge.

   Arthur Eve's excellent 1937 first official biography of Rutherford, states that Rutherford "had no difficulty in obtaining scholarships and prizes." This has recently been repeated by Cecilia Jarlskog in her paper on Rutherford's Nobel Prize (CERN Courier December 2008). The truth is quite different.

   Eve knew Rutherford from when he was a distinguished scientist until death, and is guilty, as are so many, of projecting Rutherford's genius back into his childhood without checking. As I am the only person to have studied Rutherford's development in New Zealand, the details are in my book.

   The essence is that Rutherford took two goes at any scholarship he ever got, from primary school to secondary school (1885 and 1886 when, had Edward Paisley not crashed in English, Rutherford would never have received that one), from secondary school to the University of New Zealand (on his first attempt in 1888 he passed matriculation but not high enough on the list for a scholarship to pay fees so he stayed an extra year at secondary school, as many did, for another attempt in 1889), and from University to overseas scholarship (he was ranked 2nd of the two candidates who applied for nomination for the one biennial Exhibition of 1851 Science Scholarship available to New Zealand graduates, but the top candidate withdrew leaving Rutherford as the only nomination for 1895).

   At Canterbury College it is true that Rutherford received the undergraduate Maths prize every year (1890-92). However, the record shows that in his first year he shared it with Willie Marris (a classicist and later governor of Assam), and in the second and third years he was beaten by, then equal with, Marris but it was awarded to Rutherford because a student could only hold one scholarship and Marris also won the classics scholarship so took that. It should not be overlooked that there were only 4 or 5 applicants each year, only two of whom were serious.

   Rutherford obtained his early prizes and scholarships through hard work and perseverance, not natural brilliance.

back to top

The Ship on Which the Rutherford Family Arrived in New Zealand

   Arthur Eve's excellent 1937 first official biography of Rutherford, states incorrectly that the Rutherford family arrived in New Zealand on the Phoebe Dunbar. The fact is that the Phoebe Dunbar was built seven years after the Rutherford's arrived. I thought I had eliminated this error but it has recently been repeated by Richard Reeves in his biography of Rutherford A Force of Nature (Atlas Books, 2008). Biographers should always also consult recent books which have been well researched.

   The details are in my book Rutherford's Ancestors (ch 2 and p26). The Rutherford's arrived in Nelson on the 29th of March 1843 on the ship Phoebe. In 1849 the Phoebe was wrecked on the coast of India. Her owner, Duncan Dunbar, had a replacement ship built, the Phoebe Dunbar, which he had also named after his wife.

So biographers beware. In Eve's first paragraph of 9 lines there are 7 errors or points that require explanation.

back to top

Biography | Milestones | DVD/Books | Birthplace | Other Places | Awards | HonouringErn | Bibliography | Miscellaneous | Site Map

Website maintained by John Campbell, author of Rutherford Scientist Supreme.
2001 John Campbell
Site design and development by Webcentre Ltd